California budget threat to state parks doesn't apply to an off-roader favorite

Rob Hunter leaned over his canary yellow, orange-flamed dune buggy 20 yards from the lapping Pismo Beach surf and ticked off specs with palpable pride.

"This baby is a 400 horsepower V-8," he beamed. "It's got an LS1 Corvette engine . . . and perfectly balanced 50/50, just like a Corvette is."

Any time Hunter, 48, can piece together a few spare days, he and his family camp here in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, known to most duners as "Pismo."

Along with 17 other volunteers, Hunter patrols these 1,500 acres of wind-swept sand, the last patch of coast in the state open to vehicles.


FOR THE RECORD:
Oceano Dunes: An article in Monday's Section A about off-road vehicle use at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area described the site as the only beach in the state where off-road vehicles are allowed. Oceano is the only such state-owned and -operated beach. Vehicles also are permitted in areas of Clam Beach County Park and Samoa Dunes Recreation Area in Humboldt County. —


On summer weekends, as many as 40,000 visitors can turn this stretch into a temporary city, packed with quads, motorbikes, Hummers and buggies.

For more than a decade, protections for endangered species, lawsuits and jurisdictional battles have whittled the off-road area down by thousands of acres.

The recent announcement of possible state park closures because of the budget crisis has sharpened the conflict. Funded by gasoline taxes, Oceano Dunes is not on the governor's closure list. That has some folks rattling their hiking sticks and others revving their engines.

"The governor plans to eliminate the entire state parks budget except for Oceano Dunes," said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's California coastal programs. "Isn't that a cruel twist of fate? Only the park dedicated to environmental destruction and climate roasting prevails."

Andrew Zilke, superintendent of Oceano Dunes, is used to such talk. "There are really only two sides to this thing," he said. "You either love it or you hate it."

Why off-roaders love Pismo is evident in the ear-to-ear grins and wild eyes of the "dune rats" as they return to their beach-side campsites to refuel.

"Remember the E-ticket ride at Disneyland?" Hunter asked with a smile. "Well, that's duning. Duning is the E ticket."

Hunter piloted his rig onto Sand Highway, the traffic corridor that leads to the bowls, slip faces and witch's eyes of the back dunes, where there is no speed limit.

It was here that Christopher Meadows, a volunteer emergency medical technician, was killed after flipping his quad while responding to an emergency call May 24. An off-road ambulance also misjudged the dunes and landed on him. His death, although a rarity for a park with 2 million annual visitors, has helped fuel calls to ban vehicles on state beaches.

"It's the Wild West out there," said Nell Langford, a nearby homeowner and head of Safe Beach Now. "It's like they think this is Baja."

Off-roaders note that deaths on the dunes are statistically far less likely than a fatality on California's paved roads.

"People die on bunny slopes in ski areas," said Kevin Rice, an avid dirt biker from San Luis Obispo. "Does that mean the slope itself is dangerous?"

Rice and other off-road enthusiasts mourn the countless acres now off-limits to their machines: Saline Dunes, Black Sands Beach, Eureka Dunes. "Back in the '70s we could go just about anywhere," Rice said.

Hunter pointed out the fencing that marks the boundary of nesting areas for the western snowy plover, an endangered species at the heart of lawsuits that have compressed the duners' off-roading zone. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a notice of intent to sue over this last piece of vehicle area, saying bird monitors have observed plovers "crushed and terrorized by vehicles."

Hunter said plovers fare better in the Oceano Dunes, because noise from the vehicles spooks predators. "The fledgling rate is way up here," he said.

Fourteen miles southeast of the off-road area, where the dunes become rows of strawberries and then tract homes, lives Bill Deneen, 84, behind a berm of pepper trees, a massive aloe plant and a faded American flag.

"My unfinished project is to get the vehicles off the beach," Deneen said. "If I can do that, I will feel my life has been significant."

Neither age nor property lines keeps him from roving the sand where he pleases. Zilke recently cited Deneen for walking into an area closed because of plover nesting.

Zilke nonetheless sees Deneen as a valuable local resource for translating the ecology of the dunes. "He's trekked every square inch of those 17,000 acres," Zilke said. "He knows the dunes better than any other living individual."

On a recent Sunday, Deneen headed out to Mussel Rock. Older duners know this place as "Devil's Slide" and remember racing up its steep faces. With his threadbare hat pulled low to the wind, he lifted his binoculars to the horizon and spotted three plovers. One pair flitted about in a mating dance.

Deneen made the case for the bird's importance. "What's one species?" he asked. "Not much. Get rid of them. But if you modify the whole habitat, when you wipe out hundreds, thousands of species, that is not very smart. We like to call ourselves 'man wise': Homo sapiens. But we're certainly modifying our habitat."

Deneen and Massara see the plover as a key indicator of the overall health of the California coast. In the last 50 years, the plover population has dwindled from tens of thousands to fewer than a thousand, and biologists believe it could become extinct within decades.

Massara rejects the notion, put forward by some, that one small swath of off-road area won't make a difference. "I think the more appropriate question is how much habitat do the humans need," he said.

Back on the beach, the steady stream of toy-hauling pickup trucks rumbled past Langford's patio and the teeming campsites. George Lopez and his family gathered around their campsite, flying a kite and preparing a birthday dinner for Lopez's son. Lopez has been coming to Oceano for a dozen years and is well aware of the plover habitat preservation closures.

"There are lots of animals that have gone extinct in the last thousands of years," said Lopez. "What does the snowy plover provide for us? I'd rather have the riding area, where people can grow with their families and have fun, rather than some bird that we've never even seen out here. Who knows if there's even a bird?"

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