California Coastal Commission Keeps Oceano Dunes Open For Off-roading

Considered "geologically unique" the Oceano Dunes Preserve is also home to the California Least Tern and Snowy Plover, both considered endangered. Despite that and the the rise in human deaths from off-roading accidents, the California Coastal Commission will allow people in their OHVs and ATVs to run roughshod over this unique ecosystem.

The California Coastal Commission recently held a hearing to determine if off-roading can continue at the Oceano Dunes Preserve at the central California coast. They decided it can continue for now. 

Safety is an issue at the dunes. Six deaths have occurred involving OHVs on the dunes in 2019, which is the deadliest year on record for the area. While there are more restrictions on the dunes than in the past, there is still "an atmosphere of personal responsibility," as the San Luis Obispo Tribune put it. The problem is that while some areas have a 15 mph speed limit, other areas lack any specific limit. Instead, there is a rule to "never drive faster than is safe for conditions," according to the California State Park. That is harder to enforce.

The Oceano Dunes Preserve is a sand dune complex three miles south of Pismo Beach in Central California. It is described by the California State Parks as "geologically unique." It is also the only state park in California where off-highway vehicles (OHVs) and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) can drive on parts of the beach and sand dunes. There are about 1,500 acres of sand dunes and 5.5 miles of beachfront that vehicles can drive on. 

Oceano Dunes are part of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes ecosystem, an 18 mile stretch of sand dunes along the shore in central California, from Pismo State Beach to Point Sal. Wind sweeps over and turns the sand into dunes. It is a special feature of California’s central coast. 

Off-roading puts stress on the environment

There are environmental issues associated with allowing OHVs and ATVs to be driven on the dunes. One of those issues is that there are increased emissions found in the riding areas of Oceano Dunes, according to a 2013 report. The problem is that the OHVs and ATVs emit particulate matter, although it has not been determined if they contribute to poor air quality downwind of the dunes.

There is another environmental problem. Oceano Dunes is a breeding ground for two ground-nesting birds: the California least tern, which is a state and federally endangered bird, and the Western snowy plover, a federally endangered bird. The colony of the California least terns is small at the Oceano Dunes but is one of the top contributors to the number of juveniles produced every year in the state, according to the California State Parks. The colony of snowy plover adults at the Oceano Dunes contains both those there year-round and migratory birds. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened a lawsuit in 2017, characterizes the snowy plovers as “one of the most threatened shorebirds in North America.” Despite being under the protection of the Endangered Species Act since 1993, their population has continued to decline. Six dead snowy plovers were found in vehicle tracks at Oceano Dunes in 2016. 

Oceano Dunes is a moneymaker for the area

There is something that factored into the decision by the Coastal Commission to continue to allow off-roading at Oceano Dunes. That factor is the tourist revenue. A 2016 survey of people who visited the dunes found that 85 percent were outsiders, and most of those outsiders are from California, namely the San Joaquin Valley. The overall economic impact of the dunes is an estimated $243 million a year. The top activity survey respondents listed while staying in the area was ATV riding

What the state, including the Coastal Commission, needs to determine is if the increased deaths and the environmental risks are worth allowing tourists from the San Joaquin Valley to use Oceano Dunes as their playground. 

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