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FYI: Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night? –Jack Kerouac

Drawing lines in the sand

Debate heats up over driving on the Oceano Dunes as the Coastal Commission prepares to meet?


There is no doubt that people all over California love the Oceano Dunes. The question is, are they loving it to death?

That's what debate will center around when the California Coastal Commission meets at the Embassy Suites in SLO Feb. 13—16. The commission is breaking new ground by holding its first periodic review here on Feb. 15, a meeting designed to gather input from local citizens as to how the coastal plan is working. But the most controversial item on the agenda will be discussed Feb. 14–a request by the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to amend its permit and change the way limits are set on the number of vehicles allowed on the dunes.

The commission will have the daunting task of setting policy for this 5 miles of coastline–a situation that has environmentalists and vehicular recreationalists at odds.

Word has been spreading via environmentalists’ e-mail lists for weeks to mobilize, speak out, make your concerns heard. A Sierra Club meeting held Jan. 18 was packed with people arguing over the fate of this tiny stretch of beach.

Meanwhile, glossy "media advisory/photo opportunity" faxes have been arriving from Fleishman-Hillard, a Sacramento PR agency representing the off-highway vehicle division of California Department of Parks and Recreation, courtesy of your tax dollars. (The agency is offering reporters a free dunes tour in an OHV.)

The last time the coastal commission met here, the controversy it dealt with was over the proposed Hearst golf resort along San Simeon’s wild coastline. Over 1,000 people attended, 400 filling the meeting room and the rest spilling out into the Embassy Suite’s lobby and hallways. One of the pivotal events of that meeting was the tour the commissioners took of the rocky coast. Since the commissioners do not have time to tour of Oceano dunes, the Sierra Club plans to bring the dunes to them by means of a video that was previewed at the January meeting.

The Oceano dunes photograph well. An award-winning photograph of them appeared in a Life magazine special issue called Earth’s Wonders. The photographer caught the interplay of light and shadow on its sensuous contours.

There are many Chumash middens and sacred burial grounds hidden in the dunes. The Chumash believed that Point Sal, to the south, was the gateway through which souls pass to the next world. To the naturalist, the dunes are valuable because they shelter fragile plants and species.

But the dunes are not famous for these things. They are famous as the last limitless playground on the California Coast, the Sand Highway, the only public beach on which off-road vehicles are still allowed.

"There has been so much hyperbole about the meeting," said Dennis A. Doberneck, superintendent of the Oceano Dunes Recreation Area. "Whether or not we continue to allow vehicles into the park is not the issue that will be discussed. The Coastal Commission will be discussing a proposed amendment to the park’s permit which will create a technical review committee of stakeholders with the power to set flexible limits on the number of vehicles based on its findings rather than forcing the park to stick to one number."

Currently, 4,300 vehicles are allowed into the park per day. This includes both street-legal vehicles and OHVs. An additional 1,000 camping units are allowed in at night. However, there is no limit to the number of OHVs that may be transported into the recreation area by each registered camping vehicle.

The Department of Parks & Recreation is requesting that the Coastal Commission keep the day-use limit at 4,300 and the overnight limit at 1,000. However, they are willing to agree to an overall limit of 2,000 on OHVs–day or night.

Coastal Commission staff is instead proposing that limits be changed to 3,000 street-legal vehicles in a 24-hour period, 1,000 camping units (defined as one street-legal vehicle that enters the park under its own power), and a total of 2,000 off-highway vehicles in either category per day.

Parks & Recreation statistics show that the number of street-legal vehicles has exceeded 3,000 only eight times in the past 16 years. Every time the limit was exceeded, it recorded a "bump day" The excess number of vehicles was tallied–but let in. Under the new proposal, "bump days" would be limited to four–Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving.

There are no special rules about nights when there’s a full moon. But Oceano residents say those are the times when some OHV enthusiasts ride all night, and they’re noisy. (One factor people either love or hate about OHVs is that they are noisy.) And residents complain that although the park gate closes at 7 p.m., no one is left to count the vehicles coming in, and they continue to come in all night–rendering the limits meaningless.

The Sierra Club has a suggestion for the commission as to the number of vehicles that should be allowed: zero, at least temporarily, while a comprehensive environmental review is conducted. "The Park Service was supposed to do a complete impact review 18 years ago. They have never done it," said Sierra Club president Tarren Collins. "How can they truly assess the effects if they are still allowing vehicles there? The Sierra Club is not asking for complete closure, as we have been portrayed [as doing]. We are asking for a moratorium on vehicle use until a study can be done to determine its effects."

If that suggestion is dismissed, South County Coalition activist Barbara Collins wants state parks to start counting the axles of vehicles going in. Presently, Doberneck explained, if an SUV drives up to the gate pulling a trailer with two OHVs, the trailer is not counted. Collins points out that because trailers are heavy they impact the sand and threaten such creatures as the snowy plover.

Rich Neufeld, mayor of Grover Beach, doesn’t want to hear about counting axles or reducing or eliminating OHV recreation on the dunes. "Even [bad] word of mouth can hurt an area. If too many people come here and get turned away, it puts a black eye on us–they won’t come," he said. "There are 1,072 miles of California coastline. We’re talking about 5 miles. Let this form of entertainment be enjoyed in 5 miles out of the 1,072."

Doberneck estimates that every one of the million plus annual visitors to the park spends $72 locally.

Park superintendent Doberneck works for the off-highway vehicle division of state parks–the OHV division. The OHV division receives funding from a portion of the gas tax paid by OHV users, from OHV registration fees, and from fines collected from OHV owners and fees collected at OHV parks. Opponents to OHV use on the dunes believe that since the OHV division of the parks department is funded by OHV use, it lobbies for it.

South County environmental activist and Nipomo resident Bill Deneen proposes that the entire OHV division of the State Parks Department be eliminated along with the vehicle recreation it represents. He once rode the dunes in a hand-made dune buggy, he admits. But today OHVs are marketed by Honda and other corporations, and they’re a $50 million a year industry.

The corporations even got the legislature to pass legislation "while enviros slept" to establish a percent of the gasoline tax "to promote the driving of vehicles as a type of ‘recreation,’ Deneen said. "This money should have been used to promote bikeways, walking, and bus transportation –not 'recreational' vehicle use."

Doberneck argues that vehicle recreation interests can be part of the park’s service mission. Another part of the mission is protecting endangered species, he points out, and his staff has been monitoring the fate of two endangered bird species–the western snowy plover and the least ternsince 1992. OHV park personnel are so well known for dune restoration techniques, he said, that they are sent as experts to other coastal areas such as Sonoma County.

Doberneck looks forward to getting the discussion moved to a technical review committee that will review data. "This tends to minimize emotion. When you are operating just on an emotional level, you tend to not get good results. When people handle information objectively they have a better understanding."

The proposed committee would include nine stakeholders, including representatives from the coastal commission, SLO county, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Fish and Game, California Department of Parks, Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Division Commission, the OHV community, the environmental community, local government, and the business community.

Sierra Club president Tarren Collins said the club thinks that just means it won’t get anything done. The Sierra Club would like to see the Coastal Commission take the word "technical" more literally, and staff the committee with scientists.

On the Sierra Club video, a biologist discusses the effect of thousands of vehicles riding over the dunes, and suggests that vehicle-riding be restricted to the back dunes rather than the fore-dunes by the shore. The back dunes, he says, would be less impacted by vehicular traffic.

After watching the Sierra Club’s video, a woman of Chumash descent said that while the back dunes may be better able to withstand vehicle use, they are more likely to be the site of sacred burials.

The video shows a huge four-wheel-drive vehicle stuck in Arroyo Grande creek, its tires clawing the bank and spewing mud everywhere. Watching this prompted a speaker at the January meeting to complain about the decreasing number of steelhead in the creek. The Sierra Club is asking for seasonal closure of the park during spawning periods.

But Dobernick said that in the winter, when the endangered steelhead spawn and the creek is swollen with rain, the creek becomes impassable and is often closed anyway.

OHV supporters at the meeting complained that the Sierra Club was being too extreme.

"Where in California is there an off-road vehicle recreation area that the Sierra Club does not oppose?" one man asked. "The problem that we are facing is that areas for OHV use are being narrowed down until there will be nothing left. Where are we supposed to go? There used to be 17 miles of beach we could ride on. Now there is only 5 miles."

"I’ve been riding the dunes since I was 4 years old," said Mike Bradley, a third-year computer science student at Cal Poly. Bradley used to come up to Pismo Beach with his father and his two brothers, Matt and Mark. "It was one thing that we could all do together," he said. Their mother stayed behind in Thousand Oaks.

"We’d play follow the leader," said Bradley. His dad would usually be in front and the boys would follow behind as they rode the dunes. "The tricky thing about sand dunes is that you roll on one side, the other side drops off, because that’s the way the wind makes them. But they’re soft. The dunes are the safest place to teach people to ride. If I ever have kids, I look forward to taking them to the dunes."

"Primarily what recreational vehicle use in the dunes is all about is smiling families," said Peter Keith, a former Grover city council member who still rides his motorcycle on the dunes. "Dune riding is a cohesive, family-centered activity."

Larry Bross of Oceano is a member of the South Coast Coalition, which represents Oceano, the community most impacted by the park, and, he said, the least influential in its management.

He reminded people at the Sierra Club meeting that when Pismo, once famous for dune riding, eliminated vehicle use, the economy did not weaken as predicted. Instead, it flourished.

"I recognize people’s right to recreate the way they want to," Bross said. "But the problem is when [vehicle riders] take over the beach, there is no way of competing with them."

Bross is a retired history teacher who has been tinkering with his "escape cabin" on Strand Way since 1969. Nearly all vehicles en route to Sand Highway pass directly in front of his house.

As a historian, Bross can appreciate that his house sits where the Dunites once lived. The Dunites were a group of artists, mystics, hermits, and others who began inhabiting the dunes from Oceano to Oso Flaco Lake in the 1930s. He’s kept a dog-earred copy of the 1975 plan for the dunes tucked into his book case next to a biography of Jefferson. It called for 326 camping sites, to be reduced to 200 when a County campground was completed. "The County campground was completed, but the number of campsites on the dunes tripled," he said.

His house looks like a boat, with the second story the main deck and windows for sails. Bross keeps out the perpetual drone of OHVs with insulation 12 inches thick.

His short white beard and his wind-roughened face make Bross looks like one of those wooden carvings of sailors sold in seaside curio shops. All that’s missing is a pipe. He’s a transplanted Jew from Brooklyn who lost his accent but not his chutzpah.

Bross admits he’d rather see no vehicles on the dunes–his property values would double, he said. But he insists he isn’t really asking for that. He’d like to see his grandchildren to be able to play on the beach safely.

Bross has a penchant for rallying for the underdog, which in this case is the community of Oceano, which he calls the Rodney Dangerfield of the Central Coast (he thinks it gets no respect from the park service). Bross has been fighting to get Oceano a voice in what happens in the dunes–essentially its front yard–for nearly 30 years.

"Oceano has no vehicle-free beach. Every other community has one. Pismo has one, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Cayucos, Nipomo, Guadalupe–everywhere else has some area that is vehicle-free except Oceano," he said.

The South County Coalition, of which Bross is a founding member, advocates an alternate entrance to the park south of Arroyo Grande Creek, and the further limiting of vehicular beach access. Or perhaps there could be seasonal closures, Bross suggests. Then Oceano would have a vehicle-free beach. Oceano is neglected in other ways too, he contends; he points out that there are no lifeguard stations or equipment on Oceano Dunes, he points out.

Park superintendent Doberneck said lifeguard stations are impractical on this five-mile stretch of beach. Instead, rangers trained in lifesaving techniques cruise the beach in trucks. But that doesn’t make Bross want to lay his blanket down on the sand and let his grandchildren play there. In Oceano, when you tells your kids, "go play in traffic," they just might.

The dunes have had a major impact on Arroyo Grande General Hospital, but certain actions taken by the park service have gone a long way toward improving that, according to emergency services director Dr. Gene Keller. "Banning three-wheel ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] helped dramatically," he said. "There has also been a much greater effort to limit the amount of alcohol consumed while operating OHVs." Still, "inherently there’s only so much you can do to make operating gas-powered vehicles on shifting sand with a variety of skill levels and some use of alcohol a safe activity."

Last summer, between June 1 and August 31, San Luis Ambulance made 72 runs to the beach, according to operations manager Chris Javine. Off-season–between October and December–there were 33 vehicular accidents.

Considering the number of recreationalists during the same fall period–71,599 walk-ins, nearly 30,000 day use vehicles, and 10,944 camping vehicles–33 accidents is a small percentage, said Doberneck. "The sport is perceived of as dangerous, but the data doesn’t support [that perception],’ he said.

These type of perceptions are why Doberneck is hoping a the technical review committee will be established to objectively review the data.

OHV enthusiast Bradley said if OHV recreation was eliminated from Oceano Dunes, he would be terribly disappointed, but not because he couldn’t ride there. "I prefer riding track and trails now. But I think more than anything else, I’d be disappointed that they couldn’t come up with a compromise." Æ

New Times reporter Anne Quinn would have liked to have been a Dunite. But she’ll have to settle for being an Atascadero-ite.

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