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Take it back

It might be an uphill battle, but locals should come together to keep the dunes vehicle free



The other evening my wife, Gayle, and I meandered down the Oceano beach south of Pier Avenue. We've done that many times in the four months since vehicles were excommunicated from the sand there. So have many others.

This is what we experienced:

• Children building moats, castles, and other wondrous structures in the damp sand.

• Families lolling under beach umbrellas, reading, talking, listening to portable radios, just soaking up the atmosphere. Occasionally they would run to the ocean and swim, or swing their giggling younger kids, shrieking with joy, in the air above the water.

• Young men and women playing volleyball and Nerf football, laughing, flirting.

• Fishermen casting into the Pacific. Paragliders. Kite flyers.

• Joggers, and people of all ages walking their dogs; the dogs, of course, loving it.

• The clean, fresh smell of the sea.

• The waves lapping softly against the sand.

• Most of all, we observed the ethereal beauty of the place, a transcendent breathtaking splendor that surely ranks it among the world's most sublime spots, a seascape by Monet.

All of that goes away if the motor vehicles come back.

Instead we will be subjected to the old, familiar, malevolent bugaboos: gasoline fumes, loud, off-road and other vehicles careening down the beach, children and others scattering to keep from becoming roadkill.

Sooner rather than later, all the people I described above—people who also own that state beach because their taxes pay for it—will go away.

And the gang of despoilers that for decades has taken sole possession of our little paradise will have it all to themselves once more, while the rest of us pound sand.

I didn't think I'd ever say anything good about COVID-19, but give credit where it's due. By giving "We the People" back our beach, it showed us what a spectacular place we have and underscored what we've been missing since the gasoline crowd hijacked it.

The off-roaders should be welcomed back when the quarantine is lifted, as should we all. But they should leave their destructive, motorized toys at home.

State Parks will tell you that you can do all the things I've described while the ATVs roam. That is unadulterated horse pucky.

Only one group of people possess that stretch of beach, and they have held on to it for a long, long time. It's time for the rest of us to take it back.

It won't be easy. They've clutched it tightly in their oil-stained paws for decades. How? Through a combination of political power at the state and local level; a lack of accountability at their outlaw mentality and behavior; intimidation of opponents; and the careful cultivation of a myth.

That myth says that the off-roaders are one big happy family, who come back year after year, across the generations, to have good wholesome fun at the beach. It's Mom and Pop and Junior and Sis, with Spot and Fluffy thrown in for good measure.

For a long time, I bought into that yarn. I didn't like the motor vehicle crowd taking sole possession of the dunes. But my attitude was called elitist, and I had to agree: I love the pristine purity of such a place. I have been in the Sahara and love to go to Kelso Dunes down in the desert.

I thought I might be just an updated version of that old "get off my lawn" geezer: "Get off my beach!"

There might be some truth in the "happy families" cover story. Still, over time, I came to realize that that 1950s Ward and June Cleaver camper persona buries a few things: Dozens of deaths on the dunes, thousands of injuries. Trash, alcohol. ATVs kicking up sand to choke people who live nearby and mowing down shorebirds.

It's time for a change.

Three groups want the off-roaders gone.

• People on the Nipomo Mesa and other points downwind choking from sand kicked up by off-roaders.

• Environmentalists who care about the snowy plover and, well, the environment.

• Doctors, nurses, and others who have seen, firsthand, lives lost and families destroyed by dune riders who get careless.

Each of these groups has flailed at the off-road lobby, with limited success. I would like to see them join forces and present a coordinated, compelling case to the California Coastal Commission and State Parks board.

It might take a private investigator and/or computer wizard to do that. But there must be a miles-long paper trail. Consider all the agencies that are called to the dunes. Ambulances, police, fire, trash collectors, city and county and state bureaucracies. Each of them has records.

And what of the families of those who died and were hurt. Dozens of deaths, thousands of injuries. It beggars belief that none of these people has filed legal actions. How many have, and what has it cost us?

Even if those who want to return the beach and dunes to all of us succeed at that task, they will still face one major hurdle: money.

Many people argue that closing the dunes to off-roaders would be too big a financial hit for the county. But that's just a failure of imagination. With vision, the beach could attract a different species of tourist. It could become a Yosemite-like attraction for people from around this the world. It's that spectacular.

That last point underscores that this is not just an attack on the motor vehicles that have despoiled the magnificent spot. It is an argument that we could do better.

Given the political stranglehold the off-road lobby has on local and state governments, this will be an uphill battle. I hope those locals who agree on the larger goal of keeping the beach and dunes free of vehicles will work together to mount an argument that caries weight. I hope visionaries—the county has plenty of them—will begin to think about what could be at this extraordinary place, rather than what is.

Meanwhile, I suggest that local folks—socially distancing—enjoy this exquisite gift in our backyard. We don't know how long we'll have until it turns back into a pumpkin. Δ

Robert C. Cuddy writes The Cuddy Edge from South County. Send a response for publication to [email protected].

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