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Off-roaders, environmentalists face off at popular California state park

Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

OCEANO, Calif. -- For generations, off-road vehicle riders have flocked to this windy stretch of the Central Coast to camp on the shore, build bonfires in the sand, and gun their engines in the only state park in California that allows motor vehicles on the beach and dunes.

And for nearly as long, the surfside playground of Oceano Dunes has generated anger among residents and conservationists, who complain that off-roaders have crushed endangered species beneath their wheels, disrupted sensitive habitat and sent clouds of unhealthy dust billowing into their neighborhoods.

Now, the staff of California's powerful Coastal Commission is saying enough is enough.

On Thursday, the commission will consider a staff recommendation to begin phasing out off-highway vehicle use at one of the state's busiest parks -- a proposal that is reigniting long-running debate over beach access, and whose interests deserve protection.

On one side of the battle is the Dunes Alliance, a coalition of community groups and environmentalists who welcome the move as long overdue. They say the crush of RVs, quads, side-by-sides, dirt bikes and dune buggies has harmed the coastal ecosystem and saddled nearby towns with noise, danger and pollution.

"This is like the Wild West. Anything goes. And it's vehicles first," said Cynthia Replogle, president of the Oceano Beach Community Association and a resident of the small gateway community next to the park. "We're basically the doormat of the dunes -- we get all the negative impacts."


On the other side of the debate are the Friends of Oceano Dunes, off-road enthusiasts and campers who have spent years fighting efforts to restrict their use of the state vehicular recreation area, only to see more land fenced off to protect endangered birds and air quality. They have accused coastal regulators and detractors of elitism and overreach.

"It has been a nonstop battle, a whittling away," said Danny Hensley, an Oceano native with the Jerk Pirates Offroad Group -- a volunteer organization that collects trash along the beach and helps riders who get stuck in the sand. "Now they think they can shut our park down."

Off-road enthusiasts have flooded state officials with phone calls and letters and circulated a petition to protect vehicle access to the dunes. They are urging the state parks department, whose off-highway division has long advocated for them, to stand up to the Coastal Commission.

The Oceano Dunes are just a few miles south of Pismo Beach, off Highway 1, and draw visitors from across the state. For $10 a night, visitors can camp at one of 1,000 dispersed sites and ride all kinds of vehicles along the "Sand Highway" and the dunes it traverses.


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