Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Can we see clearly now?

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In "Keeping Quiet," published in 1957, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is astonishingly prescient about this unprecedented moment in which the entire world has paused:

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines ...

...

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us ...

The Earth can teach us, if we take this opportunity to look and listen.

With 4 billion—half the world's population—staying at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Earth itself can literally be heard. Seismic researchers have recorded a dramatic drop in noise and shaking in the Earth's crust. The absence of clamor is giving scientists a chance to study the tremors and rumblings of earthquakes, volcanoes, and waves. Yes, strutting and fretting humans not only drown out the sounds of the Earth, but we also agitate the planet itself.

While the movement under our feet has stilled, the sky above has cleared. Like the singer in the Johnny Nash song "I Can See Clearly Now," citizens in New Delhi, for instance, who regularly wear masks to protect against deadly air pollution, have seen something new: blue sky. Moreover, they can breathe without ingesting toxins.

Currently, the pandemic has taken more than 100,000 lives worldwide and 22,000 in the U.S.—numbers that could well double or triple. But according to the World Health Organization, ambient air pollution annually kills 3 million globally. Poor air quality, the agency warns, can lead to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.

Those are the same harmful long-term health outcomes for SLO County residents who live on the Nipomo Mesa downwind of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA).

"The air quality downwind from ODSVRA is at times the worst in the nation," Yarrow Nelson explained to me. An environmental engineering professor at Cal Poly, Nelson serves as the vice chair of the Air Pollution Control District hearing board.

Because residents and groups such as the Dunes Alliance and Concerned Citizens for Clean Air have brought health and nuisance complaints against the State Parks-managed ODSVRA, Nelson has navigated contentious hearings pitting off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts against residents whose health and well-being have been adversely affected by ever-increasing crowds and traffic on Oceano Beach and dunes.

Arlene Versaw helped found Concerned Citizens for Clean Air 10 years ago when she first became aware of residents suffering and the relentless deterioration of the dunes. OHVs break the naturally occurring sand crust and send up dust plumes of particulate matter (PM). These emissions repeatedly exceed California air quality standards in blatant violation of the law.

"You can only ignore a certifiable health issue for so long," Versaw told me over the phone.

Because she and others have persistently presented the facts regarding air quality and environmental degradation of the Oceano Dunes, in 2018, State Parks was required to come up with a plan to reduce PM emissions by 50 percent by 2023. The plan also aligns with recommendations by the California Coastal Commission to protect ODSVRA habitats that are home to endangered animal and plant species, including the Western snowy plover.

The State Parks plan cuts the number of ODSVRA camping sites in half, restricts OHV use in 48 acres, restores vegetation in the foredunes to tamp down winds, and provides fencing to protect fragile habitats. A network of air monitors tracks emissions data, and a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) has been appointed to guide current and future planning.

State Parks has moved slowly—many argue too slowly. Nonetheless, progress has been made. But has the coronavirus-induced closure of the ODSVRA late in March provided any new insights about protecting this valuable natural resource?

SAG wondered the same thing—and unfortunately found that temporary closure of ODSVRA does not bring immediate improvement in air quality. In an April 6 memo, the group noted that "decades of OHV activity have fundamentally altered the natural beach-dune landscape, making the dunes significantly more susceptible to PM emissions ... ."

Even though SAG expects that only "sustained restoration" will bring a substantial reduction in PM emissions, the pause in vehicular activity has provided residents a chance to enjoy Oceano Dunes as respectful visitors.

Oceano homeowner Bonnie Ernst said to me, "All of a sudden, you can see the magnitude of the impact made by the traffic, the endless number of OHVs, the trash, all the sand—40 tons daily—tracked off the beach, the grading and tire tracks. It's sad.

"This past week, however, people are fishing, running on the beach, and hiking in the park. Without OHVs, families are picnicking, children are building sandcastles. One week won't correct all the wrongs we've imposed, but this moment of calm renews our awareness of the importance of restoring and safeguarding this special place."

The pandemic has brought heartache and untold suffering, but it has also provided an opportunity for us to appreciate the Earth's needs. Let's use this moment of clarity to embrace the necessity of clean air, the blue wonder of clear skies—and the fragility of our natural world. Δ

Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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