Enjoying nature while preserving it is an age-old conflict in California, but nowhere is it more fraught than at Oceano Dunes. Can off-roading and endangered species coexist?

At the end of an arcing sweep of shoreline tracing the pocket coves and steep cliffs of the Central Coast lies Oceano Dunes and its rippling sea of sand.

The park south of San Luis Obispo is the last state beach where visitors can legally race their 4X4s, dirt bikes and monster trucks. At night, thousands of visitors fire up RV generators or pitch tents, creating bustling mini-cities on the sand.

But these same 1,500 acres of dunes and six miles of beachfront are also home to two federally protected birds that build their nests in the sand, making them extraordinarily vulnerable. Every year at Oceano, some of the rare birds are inadvertently squashed under the wheels of off-road vehicles racing across the dunes.

Oceano Dunes is arguably the most contested stretch of sand in California, an unlikely stage for 40 years of broken agreements and laws, governmental infighting, serial lawsuits and charges that the state has prioritized motorized recreation and imperiled endangered species and other beachgoers.

The push and pull of allowing for the enjoyment of nature while ensuring its preservation is an age-old dilemma in California, but nowhere is it more fraught than at Oceano.

Now the decades-long debate over the future of these dunes has reached a climax: The California Coastal Commission has issued an unprecedented cease and desist order to its sister agency, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, signaling that the commission has moved the conflict into uncharted legal territory.

A new state parks director, Armando Quintero, is now trying to untangle what his predecessors could not.

“When I was being talked to about this job, I asked, ‘What are the biggest problems you are dealing with?’ One of them was Oceano Dunes,†Quintero, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August, told CalMatters. “I don’t know of any problem as bad as this. I don’t know where we are going to end up.â€

Mark Gold, executive director of the state’s Ocean Protection Council, has been dispatched by Newsom’s top aides to nudge the two bickering agencies closer together.

“This is a unique park,†Gold said. “Oceano has its own difficult management challenges — air quality, species protection, resources, very active recreation that is sometimes in conflict with other uses. It’s been one of the most difficult issues on the coast, and has been for 40 years.â€

Can birds and machines share a beach?

Like flocks of migrating birds, generations of families return to Oceano Dunes park every year, a cherished tradition for off-roaders. Some visitors wait six months to secure reservations during the summer high season.

The dunes are beloved because of the unique experience of piloting vehicles directly on the beach, once common but now all-but-forbidden in California. Summers at Oceano can resemble the clogged freeways that vacationers left behind: Thousands of 4X4s, tow trucks and food trucks move in long lines along the “sand highway†leading to the dunes.

Critics characterize the dune-riding free-for-all as a scene from the dystopian movie Mad Max, with trucks and dirt bikes racing up and over towering sand hills, sometimes crashing or running into each other. The noise of revving engines is not contained at the beach, nor is the dust they kick up, which drifts into neighboring streets and towns.

Drawing more than a million annual visitors, the park operates on one of the largest budgets in the state system. Expenditures there totalled $6.3 million in 2017-2018, by far the largest amount spent by any of California’s most popular state parks.

The money comes entirely from registration and user fees and a portion of gasoline taxes paid by off-road vehicle owners. And that dedicated funding source makes off-roaders the park’s chief constituency, creating a relationship, critics say, that drives management decisions that prioritize motorized recreation above all else.

“Their mission, as they see it, is to provide maximum access to off-roaders. They could care less about any other users of the park,†said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has sued the parks department over endangered species management.

Two special-status birds — the California least tern and the Western snowy plover — are among the ten animals and plants inhabiting the park that are protected by the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

A fluffy cotton ball with two toothpicks for legs, snowy plovers are cute, charismatic natives of Pacific Coast beaches. They build their nests, lay their camouflaged clutches of one-inch eggs and raise their downy chicks in gouges of sand, some of which is protected by fencing.

Unfortunately for plovers, their nesting season — March through September — coincides with the busiest time for off-roaders.

“Western snowy plovers are demure, quiet, and shy birds,†said Lena Chang, a senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As ground-nesting birds they are particularly vulnerable, but the adults fiercely protect their young, feigning injury to draw predators or other threats away from their nests and chicks, she said.

The decline of Oceano’s rare birds is a mirror of human dominance: They require the very shoreline proximity that beachcombers, property developers and residents cherish. Add racing vehicles to the mix, and humans tend to win those territorial tugs-of-war.

There was a time, decades ago, when snowy plovers skittered on beaches up and down the West Coast, preferring dunes that provided them the best of both bird worlds:  wet sand to forage for meals and undulating dunes to hide nests from predators.

But those safe havens are long gone.

When plovers were declared federally threatened in 1993, only about 1,300 were counted in California and scientists declared the species in danger of extinction. And they remain in trouble. There were only about 200 breeding adults at Oceano Dunes last year, while a federal recovery plan requires 350 or more before they no longer need federal protection. An important indicator of the species’ viability, the number of fledglings, has declined for five years and is below the park’s recovery target.

Oceano Dunes also provides an ideal home to small black and white shore birds called least terns, with its nearby lakes and lagoon perfectly suited to their foraging trips. Terns have been a federally endangered species in California since 1970. Oceano’s terns have rebounded somewhat from a disastrous 2017, when, according to a state report, “there was a near complete breeding failure with only seven juveniles produced,†largely due to predation from skunks that were inadequately controlled at the park.

Despite millions of dollars spent to help Oceano’s birds, the species are not expected to recover for at least another 10 years, according to federal wildlife managers.

‘Disconnect between Coastal Commission and Parks Department’

The conflict at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area illustrates that “habitat†is in the eye of the beholder. To some off-road riders, it’s the terns and plovers that are the interlopers, spreading into a public space set aside for beach driving.

State park officials appear to concur: A recent draft plan calls for opening more areas to vehicles, including in the birds’ sensitive habitat.

In contrast, the Coastal Commission, which has the power to regulate private and public development along the coast, has signaled its intent to protect Oceano’s birds and beaches, wielding the state Coastal Act.

The commission lashed out at the parks agency for turning a deaf ear to its 13 recommendations, which include prohibiting night riding, enforcing the 15 mph speed limit, adding more fences and reducing numbers of off-road vehicles.

Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth said the balance between motorized recreation and protection of natural resources is off-kilter at Oceano, which is part of an ecological system known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes complex. The entire park is an “Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area,†a commission designation that aims to limit the scope of activities.

Ainsworth said he supports phasing out off-roading there over five years, saying it’s clear that it is “anachronistic,†incompatible with environmental stewardship and the Coastal Act.

“This is very political,†he said. “I understand it. But one way or another, we are going to make a decision. This has been going on for almost 40 years. I’m not going to pass this on to the next executive director.â€

This spring, when the coronavirus pandemic hit California, the long stalemate reached a boiling point. With the park closed to off-roaders for seven months beginning in late March, the birds exploited the reprieve from traffic and expanded their nests beyond the fenced confines of their allotted  territory.

In response, park biologists in early June scuffed over and erased plover “scrapesâ€â€” excavations by male birds to attract females and establish nests. Park personnel also herded and moved some chicks from the new areas, and installed mylar flags to haze the birds away from the riding zones, according to the cease and desist order that the commission sent to the parks department in June.

The actions, acknowledged by park officials, violated the federal Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harassing or harming protected species, as well as  the state’s Coastal Act, according to the Coastal Commission’s order.

“There’s no question that violations occurred,†Gold said. “Of course the Coastal Commission should move forward with an action.â€

The commission could, as an extreme measure, order the park closed if it continues to violate laws. But the parks department has repeatedly said that the commission does not have authority over park management. The two state agencies could take each other to court, but that would be bad optics for the Newsom administration, as well as expensive.

 A portion of the dunes is cordoned off to protect rare birds — snowy plovers and California least terns — during nesting season on July 21, 2020. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

The same Groundhog Day argument has been playing on an endless loop for decades. Efforts to manage the dispute have now risen to the highest levels of the administration, with Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot personally engaging in shuttle diplomacy between the two agencies.

“There’s clearly been a disconnect between the Coastal Commission and the Parks Department for some time, and what appears to be a growing frustration from the Coastal Commission,†Crowfoot told CalMatters. “We are working to determine if those can be reconciled. We are trying to break through what has been years, if not decades, of disconnect.â€

Strewn with broken promises

The parks department has promised the commission countless times that it would abide by various agreements, and just as frequently reneged.

The record is so strewn with broken promises that it’s clear that the parks agency has “no regard for the Coastal Act or for coastal resources,†said Mary Shallenberger, a former chair of the Coastal Commission who was with the agency from 2004 to 2017. “It’s just astounding that it’s still going on. Nothing today is any different than at our first hearing about what the parks department is doing.â€

In a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, state park officials said they expected  to create a conservation plan to protect the birds’ habitat by 2004. Sixteen years later, in February,  a draft plan was finally published. It wouldn’t expand bird protection and instead proposes to close an important breeding area. Federal and state wildlife officials have lambasted the plan, saying it grossly underestimates the impact on the endangered species.

Oceano resident Lucia Casalinuovo protests off-road use of the state park while standing next to a mural depicting the vehicles on July 21, 2020. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly warned the park about plover deaths violating federal law. In a 2016 letter, the federal agency chided the park for slow progress on the habitat plan and warned of civil or criminal penalties. No action, however, has been taken.

The parks department has just missed another deadline: Rather than presenting a draft of a management plan detailing the park’s long-term land use at the Coastal Commission’s Oct. 8 meeting, park officials said they needed more time, promising a plan by December. Details of that document suggest the park intends to  increase riding areas and open a secluded lake to off-roaders.

Park officials also dropped another bombshell last month. The commission had ordered Oceano to remain closed until Oct. 5 to protect birds for their entire nesting season. The park reopened to limited numbers of visitors on Oct. 30, triggering commissioners’ complaints that the park first needs to have its management plan in place.

Quintero, the parks department director, said he has not yet seen a draft so he cannot comment on the agency’s plans for Oceano.

“We will continue to work on it,†he said. “I think with Oceano, we will always be working on it.â€

‘Off-highway vehicle park, not a nature preserve’

Oceano Dunes is overseen, in a unique bifurcation, by the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, a separate entity within the state’s parks department. The division solely oversees nine state parks that cater to off-roading.

Because plover protection at Oceano is paid for by fees from the off-roading community, it creates a circular argument: “They (park officials) say, ‘If we didn’t have the off-highway vehicles, we wouldn’t have the money to do this work.’ But if you didn’t have off-highway vehicles at the dunes you wouldn’t need the money to save the birds,†said Andrea Jones, director of Bird Conservation for the California Audubon Society.

If conservationists find Oceano Dunes enchanting, so do off-roaders. Advocates make impassioned arguments citing the park as an avatar for generations of riders and an annual destination for families.

One commenter at a recent Coastal Commission meeting referred to the plovers as “squatters†and told commissioners, “it’s an off-highway vehicle park, not a nature preserve.â€

“Off-roaders are the endangered species. We are becoming so backward as a society that we are closing beaches… for a bird.â€


Using an endangered species as a fulcrum to pry open a treasure chest of grievances is a common tactic for developers, oil companies and others, as is using protecting imperiled animals as a mechanism for conservationists to block development. In other words, at Oceano, riders see the bird as an impediment and environmentalists see the bird as a shield.

Given the track record, it’s difficult to see how the feuding will get untangled or how the sought-after balance is restored. If even one acre is taken away from riders in favor of the birds, advocates say, they will storm the beach and dunes to take back their sand kingdom.

“Off-roaders are the endangered species,†Lea Rigo-Hensley, a member of the pro-off-road vehicle group Friends of Oceano Dunes, told the Coastal Commission. “We are becoming so backward as a society that we are closing beaches, and ending traditions, for a bird.â€

Evelyn Delany, a former San Luis Obispo County Supervisor and advocate for eliminating off-roading at the park, is not confident that a state agency allowed to operate so willfully for so long can be expected to bow to the orders of a sister agency.

“This branch of the state parks, they don’t pay any attention to anybody else,†Delany said. “They have learned that they can get away with. I’m watching to see how far this will go.â€

The quiet dunes and beach of Oceano Dunes state park attracted local residents last July, when the park was closed to off-road vehicles due to the pandemic. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

(CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics)