Lompoc residents have for decades driven eight miles due west of town with their kids and kites and fishing poles to enjoy a windy and wild stretch of kelp-covered sand, a world apart from the raked and sunny beaches of Southern California.
But Surf Beach enjoys another distinction beyond being the only nearby beach for the 43,000-plus residents of the northern Santa Barbara County community. Surf Beach is also prime nesting ground for a tiny endangered bird called the western snowy plover.
So this wind-blown stretch of shore within the boundaries of Vandenberg Air Force Base is experiencing a countdown to closure once again, just like it did last summer. That’s angering some residents, who decry the federal government’s purported preference for birds over people.
It’s all to protect a six-inch-tall bird that hunkers down in footprints to hide and likes to nest on open sand during the same season humans prefer the beach, from late March until the end of September.
Surf Beach is unusual in that it can be closed to the public with relative ease. Public access has been granted by the Air Force, which controls Surf Beach, as well as the surrounding 99,000 acres and 35 miles of coastline.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approached the base in 1999 about closing down the beach to protect what biologists believe is prime nesting ground for the plovers. The base instead negotiated a compromise that limits public access.
That was considered inadequate by wildlife officials, so a new agreement was struck allowing one-half mile of the beach to be open each year until the public was judged to have invaded the birds’ breeding ground, which remains off-limits to the public, too often. Once officials count 25 incursions on the plover preserve for the season, they close the beach. Last year, that meant Surf Beach was off limits by mid-summer.
Since April 1, there have already been 16 violations, although no eggs or birds were harmed, base officials report. People on all sides of the issue believe it is just a matter of time before the incursion limit is reached and the beach is closed.
What miffs many locals is that Lompoc residents committed only three of the 16 violations. Many appear to have been caused by outsiders, some of whom may not have been aware of the potential penalty for walking on the wrong part of the beach.
“It’s just not fair that we might get our beach closed because of people from somewhere else,” said MaryAnna Navarro, who works as a docent on weekends, explaining to people at the Surf Beach gate why the plovers must be left alone.
Currently, the Air Force opens the beach only Friday through Monday, and it is patrolled by Air Force security personnel.
Despite the anger expressed at wildlife officials over the issue at community meetings, biologists stressed that Vandenberg is crucial to the recovery of the snowy plover.
Steve Henry, a senior biologist with the wildlife service, said the plover nests on 12 miles of the 35 miles of the Vandenberg coast.
At various times in the past, Vandenberg has accounted for 20% of the statewide population of plovers. Last year, 135 plovers were counted at Vandenberg out of an estimated 1,000 in the state.
“We’ve looked at what has and hasn’t worked at Vandenberg for years,” said Henry. “In areas that are closed to recreation activities, plovers do better in their breeding success.”
The federal wildlife service does not have the power to close beaches, biologists stressed, but it does require agencies that manage beaches to produce habitat protection plans when plover nests are found. If there is an illegal “taking” of a bird or an egg, fines up to $25,000 can be levied.
Lompoc is the most contentious locale in a growing debate over efforts to save snowy plovers along the coast. Dotting the Central Coast are pockets of marked plover habitat, where humans are prohibited from treading.
A lawsuit was filed in early May in federal court in Eugene, Ore., against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it failed to consider the economic impact of protecting hundreds of miles of coastline for snowy plover habitat in California, Oregon and Washington.
“I think Lompoc has been picked on. Let them try to do that at Huntington or Venice,” said Jim Suty, president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, an off-roading group which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with Coos County, Oregon.
At Oceano, Suty’s organization is fighting efforts by environmental groups to limit or end beach access for off-roaders to help the snowy plover.
The Air Force, as a federal agency, has stricter rules than states or counties for adhering to the Endangered Species Act, said Vandenberg spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Rebecca Bonilla. The snowy plover is listed as “threatened” under that act.
“The problem isn’t really the people of Lompoc, but it doesn’t matter. A violation is a violation no matter who causes it,” Bonilla said.
Although somewhat ironic, two Santa Barbara-based volunteers for a private group dedicated to saving sea otters accounted for two violations of snowy plover habitat. The pair had come to Surf Beach last month to count otters.
Bonilla said the base is committed to aiding the bird’s recovery, but also committed to trying to let the community have some access.
Many local leaders have been resigned to the loss of the use of Surf Beach.
“As an organization, we recognize the legalities,” said Carly Neubert, executive assistant for the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Surf Beach is on Vandenberg. I guess we should say, ‘Thank you for letting us use it for so long.’ ”
But for a mom like Elizabeth Dopp-Johnson, who had driven out to the beach in the middle of the week with her two children only to find it closed, the beach is a recreation safety valve that might be lost.
The family was dressed in swimsuits, but the gates were locked for the standard midweek closure.
“I’m all for nature. I recycle. I have a compost pile,” Dopp-Johnson said. “But closing it just takes away the best thing about Lompoc. I hope all the biologists know what they’re doing, and they’re not just experimenting with us.”