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Monday, December 14, 2020

State Parks has no plans to close Oceano Dunes to vehicles again

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2020 at 12:08 PM

Despite the latest wave of increased COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations throughout California and the resulting implementation of a regional stay-at-home-order, State Parks has no known plans to close the Oceano Dunes to vehicles as it did at the beginning of the pandemic. While that’s good news for off-roaders, some Oceano community members say the decision will encourage non-essential travel into the area and could potentially lead to further coronavirus spread on the Central Coast.

click to enlarge READY TO RIDE Trucks line up outside the entry to the Oceano Dunes SVRA on Oct. 30, the first day in seven months that vehicles were allowed in the park. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • READY TO RIDE Trucks line up outside the entry to the Oceano Dunes SVRA on Oct. 30, the first day in seven months that vehicles were allowed in the park.
The Oceano Dunes (State Vehicular Recreation Area) reopened to street-legal vehicles on Oct. 30 after a seven-month closure that started as an effort to reduce crowds and discourage travel to slow the spread of COVID-19. Now with cases of COVID-19 raging throughout the state, some community members are questioning State Parks’ differing response.

But local campgrounds within the State Parks system are closed and safety measures are being enforced, and for now, the department says that’s enough.

“While the new order is asking Californians to stay home as much as possible and for campground sites in impacted regions to close, the state also recognizes that mental health is physical health,” State Parks wrote in an emailed statement to New Times. “As such, State Parks welcomes the public to recreate in the outdoors provided that they stay local, plan ahead to find out what is open, wear a face covering, practice physical distancing and avoid gatherings with people outside the immediate household. Oceano Dunes SVRA and Pismo State Beach are open for day use recreational activities, including for street legal vehicles.”

Conservationists have been fighting the park’s reopening to vehicles since the Oceano Dunes first closed due to COVID-19 on March 26. Despite budding reopening plans in the summer, State Parks agreed to keep the Oceano Dunes closed to vehicles through Oct. 1 in a consensual cease-and-desist order with the California Coastal Commission.

In the order finalized on July 7, State Parks agreed to halt a number of development activities that the commission claimed were unpermitted and possibly harmful to snowy plovers. Without vehicles in the area throughout the spring, snowy plovers built nests outside of their "seasonal exclosures"—designated breeding areas that are off limits to vehicles and visitors—and State Parks had attempted to prevent plovers from nesting in those areas in preparation for reopening.

On Oct. 20, State Parks announced plans to reopen the Oceano Dunes to vehicles in three phases that are “designed to support a safe and healthy environment for employees, visitors, and natural resources such as the endangered Western snowy plover and California least tern.”

Since the park reopened to vehicles on Oct. 30, more than 25,000 vehicles have entered the grounds, according to data State Parks shared with New Times. An average of about 700 vehicles entered the Oceano Dunes SVRA each day in the last two months.

In a Nov. 26 letter to New Times, Nipomo resident Dorothy Hines said that’s too many, and that keeping the park open to vehicles is an “invitation to continued high levels of COVID-19 cases.”

“Given all of the closure mandates in other parts of the county,” Hines wrote, “Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area must be re-closed to vehicles.” ∆

—Kasey Bubnash
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