It's been more than 50 years since Jim Suty's family first started traveling from the Bay Area to the Oceano Dunes. Since then, he can only remember three Thanksgiving dinners he's spent away from the beach.
To Suty, the debate over the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is about more than just riding dirt bikes and ATVs. It's about having a sanctuary away from the bustle of life in San Jose. It's about family and giving his kids the same memories he'll always have of holidays and weekends at the beach.
"This fight is personal," Suty told New Times.
Suty was one of dozens of like-minded individuals who attended a public workshop on May 1 at the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande. They wore blue T-shirts to show unified opposition to possible cuts to camping and off-highway vehicle spaces in the Oceano Dunes state park.
Hosted by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) and State Parks, the meeting was an opportunity for community members to give feedback on the Oceano Dunes Draft Particulate Matter Reduction Plan. The plan is required by a legal order that State Parks agreed to months ago, after the agency was nearly sued by the APCD for failing to address the park's unnaturally high dust emissions.
Health officials say the dust could be harmful to residents' health and that fewer dust particles would be stirred up if vehicles were not allowed in the area. As part of the stipulated abatement order State Parks entered into, dust emissions must be cut by 50 percent by 2023.
Suty, who is president of the Friends of Oceano Dunes, a nonprofit that advocates to keep the area as accessible as possible, said he thinks that shoddy data collection has led to misinformation. The emissions are naturally occurring, he said, and have been overstated in recent reports.
One issue, Suty said, is that much of the emission data were collected in 2013, one of the area's driest and windiest years in recent history, leading to abnormally high levels of dust.
At the May 1 meeting, officials and scientists working on the dust mitigation project suggested creating a foredune, which confirmed Suty's and others' fears that their access could be limited or cut off. The proposed foredune would eventually grow native vegetation, run parallel to the ocean, and help slow the winds coming off the ocean, ultimately reducing the dust flowing into nearby communities.
Suty doesn't like that idea because the foredune would likely be built on space that's currently used for camping, eliminating some swaths of beach and campground space entirely. But scientists working on the project say that a foredune could be the most efficient way to see the biggest decreases.
Ian Walker is a geologist working with the Science Advisory Group, an independent team of scientists tasked with researching the Oceano Dunes and providing recommendations on ways to improve the park's dust emission rates. He's worked on dozens of coastal dune projects worldwide and said that while Oceano is beautiful, "it's anomalous."
"We don't see the types of dust emissions that we see here in Oceano from most coastal dunes systems," he said. "There are geologic reasons behind this, and there are other land-use activities behind this."
The Science Advisory Group first met in July 2018 and has since been working to gather emissions data. In 2013, Walker said the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute found that roughly 75 to 80 percent of Oceano's collected dust emissions come from the off-highway vehicle area.
Walker said that later this year, scientists will be re-collecting data similar to that collected in 2013.
In 2018, State Parks implemented scores of dust mitigation strategies, including added vegetation and wind fencing, and saw a 25 percent drop in dust emissions from 2017 to 2018.
To reach a 50 percent reduction, Walker said a foredune will likely be necessary. The Oso Flaco area has a foredune, and Walker said the dust emissions there are almost nonexistent.
Community members and stakeholders will be able to submit comments regarding mitigation online until May 15, according to Gary Willey, director of the APCD, though the deadline may be extended until the end of this month.
Tom Sherry—a Nipomo Mesa resident of about four years who attended the meeting wearing red alongside other locals concerned about air quality issues—said he appreciates the scientific, data-driven approach officials are taking.
While the battle between Nipomo residents and Oceano recreators has been long and controversial, Sherry didn't seem overly concerned about the situation. He said he's just glad something is being done to protect Nipomo Mesa residents.
"It's a matter of ensuring that people who live here have a healthy environment," Sherry said at the meeting. He then pointed toward those from the ATV community. "It's for them, too." Δ
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash from our sister paper, the Sun, can be reached at email@example.com.