Coastal Commission Punts Decision on Future of Off-Road Recreation at California Beach

With the only coastal off-road recreational area in California all but closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, shorebirds are free to bask in the setting sun on the beach at Oceano Dunes. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — Even though members of the California Coastal Commission believe the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area could be subject to Governor Gavin Newsom’s order this week protecting state lands and waters, they did not get to vote Thursday on a public works plan regarding future use and development of the park.

The delay marks the latest extension in resolving the fight between recreation enthusiasts and environmentalists over the future of the land.

The California Coastal Commission, which governs land use decisions involving the state’s coastline, was originally scheduled to vote whether to approve a public works plan by the state Department of Parks and Recreation regarding use and development of the state park in San Luis Obispo County.

Oceano Dunes is the only California beach which allows off-road vehicle recreation. Environmentalists and the Coastal Commission want to see the state park transition away from off-road vehicle use, claiming it damages environmentally sensitive habitat areas and the nesting area of endangered California shorebirds. Recreation enthusiasts say the land was purchased from a state trust to be used specifically for off-road vehicle recreation and it must continue to be used that way.

But the dispute over the way Oceano Dunes should be used isn’t just between environmentalists and recreationists. Several state agencies involved in managing the land have been unable to come to a long-term planning agreement for years.

After submitting multiple plan drafts to the commission since 2017, State Parks’ plans for Oceano Dunes would increase off-road vehicle use on the beach. The commission had directed off-road vehicle use be phased out over five years due to environmental and conservation concerns, especially regarding the endangered Western snowy plovers which nest in the dunes.

Over the summer, State Parks entered into a consent cease-and-desist order with the Coastal Commission after a whistleblowing investigation by the Center for Biological Diversity showed State Parks was deterring expanded snowy plover nesting during the Covid-19 beach closure.

Since then, Ocean Protection Council director Mark Gold of the Natural Resources Agency told commissioners Thursday, balancing the issues between recreation and conservation at Oceano Dunes “has become a major priority in the Resources Agency.”

Secretary Wade Crowfoot personally toured the park this past summer and is providing updates to Newsom’s office, Gold said.

Gold said the revised plan draft will be submitted by mid-December and the Coastal Commission can vote on whether to approve it at a meeting early next year.

Several commissioners commented Thursday they would support a plan which phases out off-road vehicle use and reduces car camping to a 1-mile stretch of the beach. Coastal Commissioner Linda Escalante pointed out Newsom’s executive order this week to protect one-third of state lands and waters would govern how Oceano Dunes can be used in the future.

Oceano Dunes Off-HIghway Vehicle Park. (California State Parks / Brian Baer photo)

“I am certain — as proven by Governor Newsom’s recent executive orders to protect at least 30% of the natural lands and waters and to seriously lower climate and air pollution from transportation — that this administration, including the Department of Natural Resources and our sister agencies, have the clean mandate to ensure we mitigate and adapt to climate change,” Escalante said.

But in the meantime, State Parks is working to come up with a reopening plan for the off-road vehicle recreation area at Oceano Dunes which has been closed during the pandemic.

Escalante asked new State Parks director Armando Quintero, who just took over heading the agency last month, whether he could issue a moratorium keeping the park closed until a new public works plan is issued for the commission’s review.

Quintero said they intend to reopen the park, as the agency has done with other state parks across California, by working with local health officials to come up with a plan regarding reduced capacity during the pandemic.

“Now we are obligated as a public beach, and not having another mechanism to close the beach, to follow the same processes that we’ve been doing in the other public beach access areas,” Quintero said.

Center for Biological Diversity senior conservation advocate Jeff Miller told Courthouse News he didn’t expect leadership changes at State Parks would cause the agency to agree to phase out off-road vehicle use as directed by the Coastal Commission.

“Until they tell us they are removing the most environmentally destructive elements from that plan, it’s all just pretty words,” Miller said.

“The bottom line is [State Parks] has been in violation of Coastal Act and local coastal plan for decades. They got a permit in the ‘80s that was supposed to be short-term and have been riding that permit for 40 years. When we finally see their plans, they don’t comply with the Coastal Act,” Miller added.

Off-road vehicle rider Randy Burleson, with Sierra Treasure Hunters 4Wheel Drive Club, said he wants to see Oceano Dunes continue to be used for off-road vehicle recreation, as the land was designated by the Legislature. He accused the Coastal Commission of being “agendized against organized recreation.”

“I think the Coastal Commission is exclusionary. They believe their use is the best use and they want to disregard all other uses,” Burleson said.

While he believes sea level rise could impact the landscape at Oceano Dunes and how the park can be used in the future, Burleson said “I see it as something we will have to work together on in the future.”

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