Remember the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes oil spill?
Maybe not. As noted in the sociological study, "Silent Spill: the Organization of an Industrial Crisis," it was "most likely the nation's largest recorded oil spill," and it went on for 38 years, but, "although it was known to oil workers in the field where it originated, to visiting regulators, and to locals who frequented the beach, the Guadalupe spill became troubling only when those involved could no longer view the sight and smell of petroleum as normal."
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, where highly toxic leaks from Unocal's oil field went unremarked for four decades while releasing an estimated 12 million gallons of diluent into the dunes, beach, groundwater, and ocean, are just south of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation area (ODSVRA). They constitute the southern portion of our local coastal dunes complex. You can access it via trails at Oso Flaco Lake.
You probably know where I'm going with this. At least, I hope you do. Last Friday, the California Coastal Commission released the staff report for its upcoming review of State Parks' compliance with its coastal development permit at the ODSVRA. I'm typing this on Saturday. I'm assuming that between then and the time you're reading this, the local media—news and social—will have disseminated this basic fact: The Coastal Commission just looked at what's been going on in the Oceano Dunes for the last 35 years and basically said that this can no longer be viewed as normal. (I'm paraphrasing. This is what they actually said: "It is time to start thinking about ways to transition the Park away from OHV use to other forms of public access and recreation. ... In short, a park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with today's laws and requirements, does not include OHV use.")
Everything in the 65-page report has been known for years. But just as with the Guadalupe spill—known to oil workers, visiting regulators, and locals—everybody knew about the problems in the Oceano Dunes but just about everybody put this frame around it: How do we somewhat lessen the problems while ensuring the perpetuation of the activity that is causing the problems?
But now hear this:
"What is appropriate in the coastal zone necessarily changes and evolves over time, including with advancing scientific knowledge and more clarity regarding regulatory requirements to protect sensitive habitats, species, and other coastal resources. OHV use in [environmentally sensitive habitat areas], and the amount of problems engendered by it, renders this use not appropriate in this setting ... . It is time for development of a contemporary park plan ... for Oceano Dunes that recognizes current science, contemporary legal requirements, and good public policy that is in the best interests of all people."
I can't pinpoint a moment or event that caused the shift in perception of the giant, decades-long oil spill under the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes and spurred all parties to action, but I predict history will record the posting of that Coastal Commission staff report on June 21, 2019, as the moment when a seismic shift began at the Oceano Dunes SVRA.
This is where the analogy ends. The Guadalupe oil spill had no supporters, no lobbyists advocating for its continuation, no chambers of commerce defending it as an economic boon. By contrast, many folks long accustomed to doing all those things in defense of environmentally unsustainable off-road recreation at the Oceano Dunes will be turning out in numbers at the Coastal Commission's July 11 meeting in SLO to tell the Coastal Commission to back off.
Fists will pound podiums. Economic Armageddon will be promised. Legal action will be threatened. The "cast doubt on the science" strategy will be hauled out and turned up to 11.
In the end, commissioners will either vote to implement the recommended permit amendments and put State Parks on notice that it's time for environmental sanity to prevail in the dunes or they won't.
The only thing that can counter the large, high-pressure front fueled by money that is about to settle on top of the Coastal Commission is a wave of people. That should include Nipomo Mesa residents struggling to draw a free breath, Oceano residents who have had enough of their town serving as an off-road pit stop, beach goers and bird watchers, nature lovers who grasp the urgency of saving the parts of nature we have left. It's going to take all of us to make this stick.
Before July 11, read the staff report. "Enough is enough" sums it up, but that also sums up the Declaration of Independence without really getting it. You need to really get it.
Then you need to show up at the Embassy Suites at 333 Madonna Road, SLO, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 11, and fill out a speaker slip. You'll have enough time to ask the commissioners to vote in support of the staff report's recommendations and tell them why.
Come early and be prepared to stay late. As a reward for your time and effort, you will be able to say forever after, "I was there when it started to change." Δ
Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor firstname.lastname@example.org.