After decades of discussion that frequently turned into debate, the California Coastal Commission has voted to end off-roading at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
For many riders, Oceano Dunes has been a favorite family destination for generations. The news struck a chord with stakeholders on both sides of the issue. It sparked conversations about everything from family traditions to the protection of threatened bird species.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll give you a quick rundown. Let’s talk about why the park closed, what those opposed to the decision are saying, and what happens next.
Oceano Dunes is one of only nine California state parks that permit recreational vehicle use. It’s also the only one located on a beach.
Formerly known as Pismo Beach, the park attracts about 1.5 million visitors each year. That makes it one of the most popular off-road attractions in California. It covers 3,500 acres along eight miles of shoreline, stretching about two miles inland. Some of the land is set aside as a nature preserve, but that still leaves over 1,000 acres where motorized vehicle use is permitted.
And California riders make sure to take advantage of those acres. Every day, hundreds (if not thousands) of ATVs, UTVs, Jeeps, and trucks enter the park to let loose on the dunes—but not for much longer.
Off-road vehicle use on the beach has been a hot topic since 1982. That’s when the Coastal Commission gave California state parks officials 18 months to regulate ORV use with the goal of protecting the dunes’ natural habitats.
That didn’t happen, though. Nearly 40 years later, the parks department is still operating under an interim system. They never put formal regulations in place, despite officials reviewing the permits and debating the issue every year since the ’80s.
All of the squabbling and strife came to a head last month, when the decision was made to end the decades-long tradition of riding on the beach.
The decision to band ORVs on the beach and end such a longstanding tradition in the off-road community wasn’t taken lightly.
A virtual meeting held on Thursday, March 18, lasted for 12 hours and heard comments from around 200 individuals. Speakers from both sides of the issue shared their thoughts before the Coastal Commission took an official vote.
The result: a unanimous decision by all 10 commissioners to put an end to ATV and UTV use at Oceano Dunes by 2024.
The decision was met with everything from relief to resentment. Banning ATVs and UTVs on the beach steals a favorite pastime for thousands of riders. It also poses a huge financial threat to some business owners.
But according to environmentalists and residents who live nearby, the park itself—and the ecosystems within it—also need to be considered. That’s where the Coastal Commission comes into play. They are tasked with enforcing the Coastal Act, which serves to protect and preserve the coast’s natural resources.
The beach at Oceano Dunes is home to many threatened and endangered species, including the western snowy plover and California least tern. Both birds make the dunes their home during nesting season. Their presence on the beach grew even stronger during last year’s temporary COVID-related closure.
According to the Commission, off-road vehicle use at the park is not consistent with the Coastal Act. They argue that ATVs and UTVs degrade fragile dune habitats and harm native species.
Many people have also complained about the noise and air pollution caused by beach riding. They say nearby neighborhoods have to deal with poor air quality from the excessive sand and dust.
And not everyone who visits the park is there for off-roading. Many people come to bike, fish, hike, bird watch, or relax on the beach—activities they argue are hard to do when surrounded by ORVs.
While a total vehicular ban is the end game, it won’t happen overnight. Officials will be rolling out new policies and regulations in phases over the next few years.
The complete ban will go into effect in 2024. Here’s how it will happen.
Effective immediately (as of 3/19/2021):
By July 1, 2022, vehicles will no longer be permitted to use the Pier Avenue entrance. This is currently the second most popular entrance for the dunes, accounting for roughly 40% of daily traffic into the park. Pedestrians, equestrians, and bikers will still be able to use this entrance.
And by March 18, 2024, state park officials must discontinue all vehicle access to the Oceano Dunes. All car camping will be limited to the beach area between Grand and Pier Avenues, which will have a maximum capacity of 500 campers.
There’s a clear divide in the community when it comes to the Commission’s decision. Of the 200 people who spoke at the March 18 meeting, there was a fairly even split in which side people stood on.
Some people think the three-year phase-out period is too generous, considering banning off-road vehicles is something that’s been up for discussion for nearly 40 years now.
But on the other side of things, there is outrage.
Local business owners, namely those who run ATV/UTV rentals that cater to park visitors, are at a loss. They already took a major hit last year, when rentals were shut down due to COVID. Now, they worry that many shops will have to close.
And for the riders, it’s all about tradition. Many of them, both locals and tourists alike, have called the park their “home away from home” for years.
The Friends of Oceano Dunes, a nonprofit organization that advocates for 23,000+ off-road enthusiasts who use the park, are already planning to file a lawsuit. They argue that the Coastal Commission is overreaching their authority by implementing an ORV ban.
What’s happening at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a test of whether off-roaders, endangered species, and neighboring residents can coexist peacefully.
As of right now, off-road vehicle use will continue at the park in some capacity for at least three more years. Whether opponents decide to move forward with legal action remains to be seen.
What do you think about the Coastal Commission’s decision to ban ORVs at Oceano Dunes?