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Off-road drivers and conservationists disagree on beach use

▶ Watch Video: Off-roading ban in Oceano Dunes creates community friction

Nestled along California’s central coast is Oceano Dunes, an eight-mile stretch of beach that has gone from playground to battleground.

More than a million off-roaders each year visit the only state park in California where vehicles can drive on the beach, pitting recreation against conservation.

Jen, a member of Friends of Oceano Dunes, a group working to keep the beaches open for off-roading, said that bringing vehicles onto the sand is “a magical, unique experience.”

Alleen Villa, a member of the Oceano Community, said, “The amount of traffic, the noise pollution, the destruction — it’s just, it’s too much.”

Battle lines have been drawn in the sand by off-roaders in the town of Oceano, where conservationists and two state agencies are fighting to protect endangered species, including the Western Snowy Plover and the California Least Tern. 

“The vehicles disturb the birds,” said Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. “These birds actually nest right on the ground, so there’s a risk of running them over and risk of habitat destruction.”

The 40-year fight came to a hotly contested head last month, when the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to phase out off-roading within three years. 

Steve Padilla, the chair of the commission, said, “There’s absolutely no doubt that this was degrading sensitive habitat and was not an allowable use under California law.”

Another part of the law is environmental justice. Oceano has a population of under 8,000, most of whom are Latino. One in five lives below the national poverty line. 

Allene Villa, of the Oceano Beach Community Association, grew up in the community, and said she does not feel the community has a voice. 

“You know, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was tolerable,” she said. “I see us as being the poster child of coastal environmental injustice, because we are not able to have a beachfront just like every other coastal town in California.” She added, “It’s easy to be taken advantage of when you’re ignored and when you have little economic power.”

Valerie Mercado, of the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce, said, “We would like to see something where people can still recreate out here, have fun, come out camping, some form of dune riding. There is a middle ground, but we’re not there yet.”

For off-roaders, it’s about generations of tradition.

Jim Suty, the president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, said, “We went from 20 miles to five miles, from 15,000 acres to 1,500 acres. We want to continue to grow the endangered species while recreating out here.”

The fees generate millions of park and tourism dollars, but for the commission, mother nature took priority over machines. 

“We’re not giving up,” Jen said. “We want to keep vehicle access and we’re going full force.”

Bonnie Ernst, a member of the Ocean Dunes community, said, “It’s a beautiful, gorgeous beach and they’re going to keep coming. To think that they’re not going to come because they can’t drive a vehicle is insane.”

The dust is still not settled in this fight over the sand and surf.

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