"The bird had been split in half. The upper portion of the snowy plover was on the west side of a tire track and the bottom half was on the east side of the tire track.... The entrails of the bird were found on the east side of the tire track just north of the lower half." —State Parks Public Safety Report, Aug. 23, 2019
Western snowy plovers are rare and threatened. They are also very small, but their bodies, when found crushed and mangled at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA)—as happened on four occasions last month—contain a great deal of information beyond the biological. They bear witness to decades of regulatory failure at the park. As much as they are being run over by cars, they are being flattened by political maneuvering.
This shredding of the Endangered Species Act due to cars and trucks continuing to be allowed to drive through an environmentally sensitive habitat area is one reason why the staff of the California Coastal Commission at its July 11 meeting in SLO recommended that commissioners put in place amendments to State Parks' coastal development permit for the park. The proposed amendments included stricter off-highway vehicle (OHV) use limits, a prohibition on nighttime vehicular activity, increased operational enforcement, and a permanent, year-round protective area for the plovers.
Had the commission voted to implement one or more of those amendments to the ODSVRA permit, some or all of those deaths could have been avoided. The same could be said of the commission's failure to take action when it reviewed the permit at its 2017 meeting in Cambria, or at its 2015 meeting in Pismo Beach. On each occasion, the commission refrained from exercising its regulatory authority in the face of clear violations and the longstanding unwillingness by State Parks' OHV division to address them. On each occasion, the commission instead asked Parks officials, in the spirit of collegiality and cooperation, to please fix the problems on their own.
In 2016, six dead plovers were found in tire tracks over eight months. This year: four dead plovers in nine days.
Per The Tribune's Sept. 8 report of last month's string of deaths, the parks biologist said, "Unfortunately, we don't have a big enough staff to watch all these birds every hour of the day."
"Be aware of signs advising you about wildlife, be aware of speed limit signs," he told The Trib, "and be extra cautious of wildlife—they have the right of way."
The biologist said that this is the time of year when State Parks does normally find some dead birds "because the snowy plovers are entering their non-breeding season where they tend to roam around the beach more," the article stated.
Well, thank goodness it's normal. And hey, if birds insist in engaging in excessive roaming, what are you gonna do?
A reliance on signage and a confessed inability to protect threatened species in your care constitute an unacceptable response to an ongoing violation of state and federal environmental laws. This is at the heart of the conclusion of coastal analysts' 2019 review of the ODSVRA's coastal development permit: "It is clear that the coastal resource issues and constraints warrant elimination of OHV use at the park."
On July 12, the Coastal Commission conveyed the message to State Parks: All of the proposed permit conditions in the commission staff report "must be addressed as permanent conditions within [State Parks' public works plan] process," and "it is time to explore alternatives to transition away from high-intensity off-highway vehicle (OHV) use to other forms of public access and recreation in order to meet Coastal Act requirements" at the Oceano Dunes.
At the Coastal Commission's Sept. 11 meeting in Newport Beach, a Sierra Club representative asked the commission why it felt compelled to write three letters to Lisa Mangat, director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, over a period of three weeks, stating and re-stating the outcomes of the commission's July meeting.
One clue: On Aug. 15, the Off-Highway Vehicle Commission thanked Parks Director Mangat for stonewalling the Coastal Commission in a letter in which she told the commission that she considered all of their recommendations to be either unnecessary or premature. Mangat modestly accepted the thanks of the OHV rep, agreeing "that letter did deliver a strong message," and adding that "it was a statement on behalf of folks above me, too. The Natural Resources Agency was very involved in that, and Secretary Wade Crowfoot provided good counsel and we spent a lot of time with him on that."
It would seem that the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees both State Parks and the Coastal Commission, is serving as the stumbling block on the path to the resolution of the chronic environmental issues at the dunes.
If you have a beak and feathers, there's not much you can do about that. Those of you with voices and opposable thumbs might want to let the governor know how you feel at govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail, by phone at (916) 445-2841, or fax at (916) 558-3160. Δ
Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.