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The 40-year train wreck 

For the past year, The Dunes Alliance (American Woodland Conservancy, Surfrider San Luis Obispo, Sierra Club's Santa Lucia Chapter, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Oso Flaco Lake, Morro Coast Audubon, ECOSLO, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, Oceano Beach Community Association, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council) have been asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to help resolve the seemingly interminable land management impasse between the state's coastal protection policies and the perceived mission of the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Specifically, State Parks has managed the Oceano Dunes with the interests of motorized recreation as a clear priority over the protection of state coastal resources, environmentally sensitive habitat areas, and protected species. Despite four decades of reports, meetings, negotiations and pledges of cooperation with resource agencies, it is giving every indication that it intends to continue doing so.

The most recent evidence of this was the discovery of official State Parks protocols for the harassment of federally protected Western snowy plovers to discourage expansion of their nesting habitat during the coronavirus shutdown of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The California Coastal Commission issued a rare cease and desist order to halt that illegal activity on July 9.

The two-part solution to this conflict is supposed to be State Parks' preparation of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to address federal Endangered Species Act issues, and a Public Works Plan (PWP) for future management of the park consistent with the Coastal Act.

After decades of delay, it now appears that State Parks is poised to submit its long-anticipated HCP to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—the same agency that was ready to sign off on those protocols for the harassment of snowy plovers and destruction of their nests before the Coastal Commission intervened.

The organizations in the Dunes Alliance are not the only ones to have noted that the draft Habitat Conservation Plan reads more like an off-roading protection plan. The HCP promotes expanding off-highway vehicle use in habitat for listed species, taking as its baseline condition an ecosystem damaged by decades of motor vehicle use, thereby guaranteeing a wholly skewed environmental analysis.

Meanwhile, State Parks' Public Works Plan for the future management of the Oceano Dunes is moving forward in tandem with the HCP, which proceeds from the premise of "no net loss" of OHV riding area and the presumption that the purpose of the HCP is to avoid "impacts on recreation" at the expense of listed species and habitat. Fish and Wildlife will likely act on the HCP prior to the Coastal Commission's review of the Public Works Plan, which will likely result in federal authorization for activities that cannot be found consistent with the Coastal Act.

The Coastal Commission is recommending that "rather than completing the HCP at this time, State Parks and USFWS could wait to further consider the HCP and its associated EIR [environmental impact report] until after the Coastal Commission takes action on State Parks' PWP. The content of the PWP would then be available to inform the range of alternatives and management measures that could need to be considered in the HCP and EIR. Although this would delay the HCP and EIR process, having that process commence after the commission acts on the PWP would provide greater certainty to the agencies involved, and USFWS, State Parks, and the Coastal Commission would have the benefit of the information developed through the completion of the PWP."

The danger that the Trump administration will approve a wholly inadequate HCP in the context of an unapproved PWP and an expiring cease and desist order represents perhaps the single greatest threat to protected species on the coast of California. Gov. Newsom needs to head off that train wreck and direct State Parks to sequence the preparation of these two critical planning documents in the manner that will ensure California's landmark Coastal Act shapes the long-term outcomes at Oceano Dunes, as opposed to a weakened and diminished federal Endangered Species Act that has already been gutted by the most destructive president in U.S. history.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Both history and current events make it clear that, at the Oceano Dunes, this will be up to the state of California, governor's office intervention will be required to ensure that this happens, and time is of the essence. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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