As historic moments go on the Central Coast, 9 p.m. on March 18, 2021, and the 10 minutes or so leading up to it, will always be hard to beat.
That's when it began to dawn on hundreds of people who had hung on to the end of that day's marathon meeting of the California Coastal Commission that the commissioners were really, finally going to do it: The shutdown of off-road vehicle activity at the Oceano Dunes had clearly gone from a question of "if" to a question of "when."
Throughout the day, the cracks had been appearing in the old regime. The good burghers of Pismo Beach and the South County chambers of commerce popped up to intone once again that no more dune buggies would mean economic ruin, still citing the 2017 "economic impact analysis" commissioned by State Parks, which the Coastal Commission knew had been thoroughly discredited.
The off-roaders' main local lobby group did its constituents no favors with a last-minute 130-page submission in which they proclaimed they didn't know what environmental justice is or what it had to do with the community of Oceano, and they didn't care—putting themselves at odds with the Coastal Commission, the governor's office, the Legislature, and state policy. (A quick primer: Ask yourself who benefits from an activity, and who bears the burden of its impacts.)
History does not happen in a vacuum. As most local residents know, you used to be able to drive cars through the surf in Pismo Beach, back when Pismo was a punchline in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Then, in 1974, after losing two vehicle beach ramps to storms, the City Council gave up on the cars-on-the-beach thing. Within two years, the drab little town had become a vacation destination.
Less well known: Up until 1971, you used to be able to drive cars on the beach in Morro Bay. The City Council and the State Parks and Recreation Commission halted the practice three years before Pismo followed suit. A city ordinance was passed in November 1970. It was immediately attacked and became the subject of a special election in April of the following year. It survived.
The ban became total for both the city beach and state beach when the State Parks Commission quietly ordered the sand spit of Morro Bay State Park closed to vehicles in May 1971. The closure was so quiet that no one knew it had happened until a month later, when Parks Commissioner Ian Macmillan asked for clarification of the minutes of the commission's May meeting. The State Parks Commission extended the city's vehicle ban on the beach north of Morro Rock to include closure of the beaches of Morro Bay State Park and Morro Strand State Beach "to protect and preserve the rare ecological and archaeological values there."
At that point, the news finally made the papers. Harold Miossi, president of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said, "The ban was well debated before the sand spit closure. It's the result of the public pulse, and I'm glad to see that public opinion has been endorsed. The sand spit is highly vulnerable. It's not a place just to have fun."
Mr. Miossi, the State Parks Commission, and the city and voters of Morro Bay in 1971, the city of Pismo Beach in 1974, and the California Coastal Commission in 2021, are linked in a historical chain.
History doesn't happen without help. Thanks are due to U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), and state Sens. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) and John Laird (D-Monterey) for stepping up for the dunes. Special thanks to Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), the author of SB 249, the re-authorizing legislation for the state's OHV law, who made it clear to coastal commissioners that they have the authority to terminate OHV activities to protect the state's coastal resources.
That authority is absolute when it comes to protecting Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas, which is why, in 2019, Coastal Commission staff found that OHV use in the dunes is "not appropriate in this setting in light of the serious issues and constraints identified," and "there may be other options that would make sense for both State Parks and the public, including updates to [Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area] operations and management that might retain some non-OHV vehicular use, not only based on its designation as a State Vehicular Recreation Area, but also based on the park's history in providing for and accommodating other forms of vehicular use that don't have the same level of adverse impact on coastal resources as OHV use."
Two years ago, the Coastal Commission spelled out the future of the dunes: "Street-legal vehicle camping on a limited portion of the beach may be able to provide a unique, lower-cost, overnight coastal camping opportunity that ties into the history of ODSVRA and continues its rich camping tradition, but with a significantly reduced impact on sensitive coastal resources and surrounding communities."
Certain parties may now feel inclined to file lawsuits with the intent of trying to turn back the future. Before they do, they should ask Morro Bay and Pismo Beach if they want to go back to the past. Δ
Andrew Christie is the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club's director. Send comments for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.