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Proposed plans for the southern end of the Oceano Dunes have environmentalists up in arms 

Although eight projects are currently proposed for Pismo State Beach and the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, only one is stirring up trouble with the Central Coast's environmental community: a campground and southern access point near Oso Flaco Lake.

"This area chosen by State Parks for this development may be the worst spot they could have chosen—as this area has historically been, and still is, one of the most sensitive and valuable natural habitats in California," said Doug Tait, the conservation chair of the Morro Coast Audubon Society. "The whole Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex is an ecological gem that is critical habitat to hundreds of coastal species and provides protection for at least 63 federal- and state-listed species."

The Audubon Society is concerned about the impact that a campground with up to 225 campsites, a flat track and kids' riding area, and a staging area for up to 100 vehicles will have on what Tait said is an important stop for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. He said the Oso Flaco area is a top birding spot in SLO County, with 283 species documented. The Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club concurs.

Although chapter Director Andrew Christie said he was unable to speak with the Sun, he did write this in a blog post on the chapter's website: "Proposing to carve out the heart of a habitat area for more than 200 avian species and drop this project into it isn't getting a great reception."

State Parks put forth two different concepts for the Oso Flaco area as part of a Public Works Plan information packet that it released for public comment in February. Both concepts call for widening Oso Flaco Lake Road and converting State Parks land that's currently used for agriculture into a campground and public access point to the Sand Highway. Three other projects were included in the packet: improvements to the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach, creating an Americans with Disabilities Act compliant boardwalk that connects Grand Avenue to Pier Avenue, and a lodge site in Grover Beach (which is no longer considered an active project for the Oceano Dunes District).

The projects released for comment were conceived during listening sessions that State Parks conducted in 2018, said Ronnie Glick, a senior environmental scientist for the Oceano Dunes. There are four other projects not included in the recent information packet that are much smaller in scale, Glick said, and address the park's needs such as improving aging infrastructure.

As part of the comment period, State Parks held two public meetings, one in Pismo Beach on Feb. 11 and one in Tulare on Feb. 19, and extended the deadline for submitting comments to March 19. The Oso Flaco project, Glick said, is generating the most controversy, locally.

"We're very early on in the process," Glick said. "But I think we're hearing two things on the Oso Flaco projects."

The off-highway vehicle community is asking State Parks to find land that's suitable for a campground and to relieve the ongoing pressure of losing land that's available to ride on. In 2018, mounting concerns about dust pollution on the Nipomo Mesa led to an agreement between the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District and State Parks that closes off an additional 100 acres of land permanently to off-highway vehicles and campers.

"There are incremental losses to that land that's available for recreation and so they're looking at ways: How can we replace what was lost?" Glick said. "And this has a lot of support from the users community."

The Friends of the Oceano Dunes told New Times that it had submitted comment on the proposals to State Parks, but didn't have any comments for the press at this time.

The environmental community's perspective, Glick said, is that State Parks is revisiting something that was agreed to 40 years ago. The general plan for the district was put in place in the mid 1970s, and the Coastal Commission granted the park a coastal development permit in 1982. Through the processes that led to those two things, State Parks agreed to establish entrances to the vehicular recreation area on the north end of the dunes complex and leave Oso Flaco Lake as a passive recreation area.

"We know more than we did back in 1982 when a lot of these decisions were made and memorialized. If we were to design this park then, knowing what we do now, would we have designed it differently?" Glick said. "Let's look at the park with the lens of today's regulatory environment and try and design something that works. ... That's why we are looking at this project in Oso Flaco."

The project, if it were to move forward, Glick said, is still years away in concept, design, logistics, recreation, and environmental review.

"To the public who may be legitimately concerned, right now we are in the concept stage," Glick said. "We really want to hear what the public thinks. We're not doing this in secret. Anyone who comes out and uses the park, we want to hear about their experiences, we want to hear their concerns, what they do like, what they don't like about this project. ... That's how you start the conversation is by putting something down on paper." Δ

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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