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A quantum leap 

Last summer, the California Coastal Commission finally said the obvious thing about the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA). It happened in the staff report for the Commission's July 11, 2019, meeting in SLO. Here are several relevant passages that sum up the matter:

• "In 1982, and because San Luis Obispo County at the time was proposing LCP [Local Coastal Plan] policies that would have prohibited OHV activity within ODSVRA, State Parks submitted an application for and the commission approved coastal development permit (CDP) 4-82-300 to define basic operational parameters for the park (most of which were purposefully only authorized temporarily and on an interim basis), and to set in motion a series of requirements to help resolve issues regarding the appropriate location and intensity of vehicular use at ODSVRA. These requirements were never fulfilled."

• " ... it has become clear to staff that the coastal resource issues and constraints affecting vehicular operations at the park are only becoming more acute, and have reached a point where it is simply not appropriate for the commission to continue to allow for use to continue as it has in the past."

• " ... it is time to start thinking about ways to transition the park away from high-intensity OHV use to other less intensive forms of public access and recreation."

The commission brought forth 15 "short-term/interim solutions" that State Parks needs to put in place first (which—surprise—it has largely refused to do, in addition to denying that the Coastal Commission even said the part about moving away from off-road vehicle use).

The commission noted that the "plan for ODSVRA to transition to other less intensive uses ... will necessarily take time." But now, suddenly, the future is here. Off-highway vehicle activity has ceased on the Oceano Dunes.

Of course, the future won't be here for long. The vehicle closure at Oceano Dunes is a brief window. The residents of Oceano suddenly have their beach back. Plovers are nesting without dodging—or failing to dodge—toy haulers and sand rails. Sinking SUVs are not being removed from the mouth of Arroyo Grande Creek by tow trucks. And the crust that forms overnight on the surface of the dunes, binding the fine particles beneath, is not being pulverized and exposed by car tires every day, thus easily dispatched into the lungs of the residents of the Nipomo Mesa via both mild breezes and high winds. (To fully measure the impact of that last change, the vehicle closure would have to last long enough to allow the foredunes to naturally re-vegetate, restoring the soil-binding plants that were lost decades ago when off-road vehicles stripped them bare.)

And yet, the state Department of Parks and the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, Gatsby style, are still endeavoring to beat on, boats against the current, back into the past. They have come up with a habitat conservation plan that proposes to shrink or eliminate habitat for the snowy plover and the least tern in order to open up more space for—wait for it—motorized vehicle recreation. You have until June 1 to let State Parks know they're headed in the wrong direction.

Last summer, the Coastal Commission pointed to "other options that would make sense for both State Parks and the public ... based on the park's history in providing for and accommodating other forms of vehicular use that don't have the same level of adverse impact on coastal resources as OHV use. For example, street-legal vehicle camping on a limited portion of the beach."

So we're not seeing a perfect preview, since the coronavirus also shut down everything around the park. That means there's no way to measure how vital off-road recreation is to the local economy by virtue of its absence, per the oft-cited "economic study," aka the Oceano Dunes District-California State Parks Economic Impact Analysis Report 2016-17 and its dizzying claims of $243 million in economic benefits (and zero economic impacts) from the ODSVRA.

Local civic boosters of the off-road playground should take a look at what Dr. Pratish Patel, associate professor at Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, had to say when he examined that study's methodology and found that its idea of "random sampling" was "akin to asking only Republicans about their view of Trump," it "inflates revenues by factoring in non-OHV visitors at Pismo State Beach and the Monarch Butterfly Grove... and exaggerates the expenditure spent in the district."

Those of a certain age will recall that Scott Bakula spent five TV seasons leaping through spacetime "to correct historical mistakes," per Wikipedia. Right now, it's as if SLO County went ahead with those policies it was going to put in place in 1982 instead of falling for assurances that a coastal development permit would "resolve issues regarding the appropriate location and intensity of vehicular use at ODSVRA," then went trudging down a path four decades long and paved with bad faith to find out that "these requirements were never fulfilled" and that State Parks would one day seek to benefit from its own bad faith by claiming that driving on the beach and off-roading in the dunes is the norm, so those environmental impacts can be ignored in its habitat conservation plan. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through [email protected].

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