Hundreds of vehicles hit Oceano Dunes to celebrate reopening, despite lawsuit and protests


After a seven-month ban on vehicle entry, the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) opened its gates to street-legal vehicles on Oct. 30, a day that was met with celebrations, protests, and even a lawsuit.

Flag-toting trucks lined up by the dozens outside the park’s entrance kiosk before sunrise on Oct. 30 in celebration of the opening, and by 3 p.m., State Parks Information Officer Jorge Moreno said roughly 600 vehicles had entered the park. Under State Parks’ current COVID-19 safety guidelines, entry to the SVRA will be limited to 1,000 vehicles a day.

READY TO RIDE Trucks line up outside the entry to the Oceano Dunes SVRA on Oct. 30, the first day in seven months that vehicles have been allowed in the park. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • READY TO RIDE Trucks line up outside the entry to the Oceano Dunes SVRA on Oct. 30, the first day in seven months that vehicles have been allowed in the park.
But some who attended the park that morning weren’t happy to see vehicles allowed again.

The Oceano Beach Community Association, a coalition of residents and business owners working to preserve Oceano’s cultural diversity and coastal environment, hosted events on Oct. 29 and 30 in protest of the SVRA’s reopening to vehicles.

“The loss of a vehicle-free, safe, and peaceful Oceano Beach and Dunes has shocked everyone who has walked, biked, surfed, ridden horses, played, walked their dog, explored the dunes, or just peacefully sat and watched the sunset of the past seven months,” Oceano Beach Community Association President Lucia Casalinuovo wrote in a press release.

Conservationists have been fighting the park’s reopening to vehicles since the Oceano Dunes first closed due to COVID-19 on March 26. Despite budding reopening plans in the summer, State Parks agreed to keep the Oceano Dunes closed to vehicles through Oct. 1 in a consensual cease and desist order with the California Coastal Commission.

In the order finalized on July 7, State Parks agreed to halt a number of development activities that the commission claimed were unpermitted and possibly harmful to snowy plovers. Without vehicles in the area throughout the spring, snowy plovers built nests outside their "seasonal exclosures"—designated breeding areas that are off limits to vehicles and visitors—and State Parks had attempted to prevent plovers from nesting in those areas in preparation for reopening.

On Oct. 20, State Parks announced plans to reopen the Oceano Dunes to vehicles in three phases that are “designed to support a safe and healthy environment for employees, visitors, and natural resources such as the endangered Western snowy plover and California least tern.” As of Oct. 30, both the Oceano Dunes SVRA and Pismo State Beach are open daily from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. for day use walking, biking, and “street legal” vehicular use. While street legal vehicles are allowed on the dunes during the first phase, off-highway vehicles and overnight camping will remain prohibited in the Oceano Dunes until the second phase of reopening, a start date for which has yet to be determined.

Now the Center for Biological Diversity is suing State Parks for reopening the Oceano Dunes to vehicles. In a lawsuit filed in federal court on Oct. 29, the Center for Biological Diversity claims that State Parks is violating the Endangered Species Act by continuing to allow vehicle activity that often harms and, in some cases kills, snowy plovers.

“For decades State Parks has let dune buggies and other vehicles harm snowy plovers and their habitat at Oceano Dunes, in violation of the Endangered Species Act,” said Jeff Miller, a Los Osos-based senior conservation advocate at the Center. “The agency refuses to implement adequate wildlife-protection measures and is pursuing a management plan for Oceano that would increase off-roading and make conditions worse for native wildlife.” ∆

—Kasey Bubnash

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