For Immediate Release, March 19, 2021

Contact:

Jeff Miller, (510) 499-9185, jmiller@biologicaldiversity.org

California Coastal Commission Orders End to Off-Roading at Oceano Dunes

California State Parks Must Phase Out Vehicles That Kill Protected Shorebirds

OCEANO, Calif.— The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously (10-0) last night to completely phase out off-road vehicle use at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area over the next three years. The California Department of Parks and Recreation will be required to implement these coastal permit conditions, with a few minor amendments.

“I’m elated by the Coastal Commission's long-overdue action to phase out destructive off-road vehicle use at Oceano Dunes,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This reprieve for endangered wildlife and coastal dunes habitat will allow the non-motorized public to enjoy our beach and dunes as well as reduce greenhouse gases and dust pollution.”

The commission found that off-road vehicle use at Oceano is not consistent with the Coastal Act and the Local Coastal Plan, due to ongoing damage to environmentally sensitive habitat areas and harm to endangered species, harmful impacts on air quality and public health, and for reasons of environmental and tribal justice.

The new permit conditions will end motorized vehicle use in dunes and beach areas that are breeding and foraging habitat for threatened western snowy plovers and California least terns. Off-road vehicles regularly killed and harassed protected shorebirds, caused nest abandonment and destroyed habitat.

The commission’s decision will phase out vehicles on the southern end of the beach and prohibit driving through Arroyo Grande Creek, which harbors imperiled fish species such as steelhead trout and tidewater goby. The beach between Grand Avenue and Pier Avenue will be open to street-legal vehicles and motorized campers, shifting this use away from habitat for sensitive species.

The permit will close the Pier Avenue vehicle entrance in Oceano. The entire park will continue to remain open for public uses such as swimming, surfing, equestrian, biking, hiking, fishing, birdwatching, and for vehicular and camping use on the northern beach.

The amendments to the staff recommendations were to: reduce the timeline for phasing out off-roading from five years to three years; end nighttime recreational riding but allow vehicles to drive at night in camping areas of the park; and extend a deadline for closure of the Pier Avenue entrance by one year, to July 1, 2022.

Significantly, the commission also told State Parks that its draft Public Works Plan, which contemplated massive coastal development and expanded off-road use, could not be approved under the Coastal Act.

The plan would have opened more dune habitat to off-road vehicles and slashed protected breeding areas for snowy plovers and least terns by one-third. It also proposed a 120-acre development near Oso Flaco Lake, including more off-roading, hundreds of campsites, huge parking lots, offices, residences and other infrastructure. This project would have driven off bird and wildlife species and degraded an important bird habitat area — the best birdwatching spot in San Luis Obispo County.

Background

The Center for Biological Diversity sued State Parks in 2020 for its violations of the Endangered Species Act in allowing off-road vehicles to kill and harm snowy plovers at Oceano Dunes. In 2020 the Center documented and exposed State Parks staff illegally interfering with the nesting of plovers at Oceano Dunes. Snowy plovers expanded their nesting and foraging areas while the beach was closed to vehicles during the COVID-19 crisis. The Coastal Commission sent State Parks a cease-and-desist letter.

State Parks is pursuing a “habitat conservation plan” under the Endangered Species Act, asking for a permit to kill and harm huge numbers of protected birds. State Parks released a draft plan in 2020 that would worsen conditions for snowy plovers, least terns and other endangered species. The plan prioritized off-road recreation over protection of wildlife and proposed opening additional sensitive dunes habitat to off-road vehicles. That plan could not legally be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and will have to be revised, based on the latest Coastal Commission action.

Western snowy plovers are rare shorebirds that have been protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1993. Although plover numbers along the West Coast are slowly increasing, the birds are still threatened by loss of nesting habitat, predation and disturbance by humans. The snowy plover population in the Central Coast, where Oceano Dunes is one of the most important breeding areas, is declining and has not yet met federal recovery goals. Providing more nesting and fledging habitat in the absence of off-road vehicles will benefit the birds.

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Snowy plover photo by Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.