The Political Conflict Over Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes is a California park on the beach where off-road vehicles can be driven and raced legally. The beach itself is six miles long with 1,500 acers of dunes and has 1.5 million visitors every year. Visitors go there to enjoy the driving and many camp overnight. Unfortunately, Oceano Dunes is also called home by two federally protected birds named the California least tern and the Western snowy plover. Both of these birds build their nests on the ground in the sand. Snowy plover eggs are about one inch in size and they lay their eggs in sand indentations that are as small as a human footprint (calmatters). The eggs are also camouflaged which in combination with their small size can make them hard for a driver to spot. Unsurprisingly, this makes the eggs vulnerable to being accidentally run over by drivers. This results in lower numbers of fledglings which makes it difficult for the population to spread. There has been a struggle for years over the beach and what it should be used for. This has led the California Costal Commission to send a cease and desist order to the Department of Parks and Recreation (calmatters). The CCC wants to protect the habitat of these costal birds from the human interference. The CCC had previously sent thirteen recommendations to the parks department including adding more fencing and prohibiting night rides. These recommendations were ignored by the parks agency (calmatters). The parks agency does not appear to be concerned about the birds. Instead, they seem to be interested in making more space available to drivers by allowing vehicles into more areas which include the birds habitat. The park agency makes money off registration and user fees so they are more interested in keeping visitors coming then conservation (calmatters). Unfortunately, to them there is little benefit in protecting the wildlife when ignoring it could be more profitable. When the coronavirus caused the park to close for seven months the birds began to expand their nests beyond the existing fences. This led park personnel to take action and push the birds back into the previously determined areas which violated the federal Endangered Species Act. The CCC has regulatory authority over both public and private development on the coast but the parks agency says the CCC has no power over park management. The bickering agencies could take the dispute to court but that would be expensive and reflect poorly on the current administration. The parks department was supposed to deliver a management plan draft to detail its long-term land use on October 8th but has delayed it to December. The struggle has been going on for nearly 40 years and the current CCC executive director says that they are not going to pass it on to the next executive director and that they will make a decision (calmatters). However, how the dispute will be resolved is still uncertain. The parks department will likely continue to ignore the CCC for as long as it can in order to keep more of the area open to drivers. They clearly care more for the drivers access to the area then the protection of the birds and that is unlikely to change without intervention. The few plans that have been given do not expand bird protection but instead they reduce it (calmatters). A better balance must be struck between recreational use of the land and conservation but with things as they are change in unlikely.

Off-road riders at Oceano Dunes
The Western snowy plover
https://calmatters.org/projects/california-beach-battle-oceano-dunes/

5 thoughts on “The Political Conflict Over Oceano Dunes

  1. Elizabeth Francisco says:

    Hi Jared,

    Thanks for this information. It surprises me that when animal conservation is a part of the conversation that there can even be a battle over a beach. I understand that tourism brings in a lot of revenue for an otherwise pretty off-the-map area (Nipomo, right?). With such great efforts especially in California to do what is right by nature, I find it shocking that Parks and Recreation have the permission to be there at all. I wonder if there could be some kind of seasonal compromise such as only allowing the driving on the beach to occur when the birds aren’t nesting. Hopefully the fight will continue and nature will win.
    Libby

  2. Elizabeth Francisco says:

    Hi Jared,

    Thanks for this information. It surprises me that when animal conservation is a part of the conversation that there can even be a battle over a beach. I understand that tourism brings in a lot of revenue for an otherwise pretty off-the-map area (Nipomo, right?). With such great efforts especially in California to do what is right by nature, I find it shocking that Parks and Recreation have the permission to be there at all.

    • Jared Kohl says:

      The park is not simply along the beach. It stretches a fair amount inland. Unfortunately there is little incentive for them to close off areas for the birds.

  3. samantha.alexander949@myci.csuci.edu says:

    I was not aware of this issue. It is sad but predictable that profit wins out over wildlife conservation. It does not help that snowy plovers are already endangered, and the continued disregard for their habitat only puts them more at risk. I find it shocking that the Department of P&R does not even listen to recommendations for more fencing and no night driving, as that seems like the bare minimum of a perfectly reasonable compromise to me. I hope this issue has a resolution that benefits the environment.

    • Jared Kohl says:

      Your right. I think there is a healthy compromise possible here but it does not seem to me that either side wants to compromise.

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