What is Oceano Dunes worth to you?
For 2-million visitors each year, Oceano Dunes is worth their weekend, their summer vacation, and their hard-earned bucks.
It's the place to be together with family and friends, to escape the inland heat, and the only place on California's coast you can camp right on the beach.
Known to many as Pismo Dunes, or simply Pismo, its true location is the town of Oceano. In 1995 the name was officially changed to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA).
Out of 278 California state parks, Oceano Dunes is the ninth most popular. Its uses include fishing, horse riding, kite boarding, and hiking...but, primarily sand duning!
Oceano Dunes became a part of California's very first highway on September 4, 1769, when the Spanish Portola expedition passed through, thus establishing the historic El Camino Real route, now moved inland and known as Pacific Coast Highway.
Sometime around 1905 automobiles appeared on the beach and were a natural fit. Autos provided access to the miles of scenic dune and ocean views, to picnicking on the beach, and more importantly to the coveted Pismo Clam. Soon, the long, flat beach gained a reputation as a good place to drive fast and race. But no one was driving off the beach and in the dunes yet, as tires and automobiles simply weren't up to it.
Hardly known is the fact that much of Oceano Dunes was subdivided in 1905 into hundreds and hundreds of parcels intended for homes. Known as the La Grande Beach Tract, many lots were sold to East Coast buyers not aware they were purchasing deep sand dunes.
The Great Depression put many lots into tax default, and because of this, the state ended up with much of the land that is now our park. Yet dozens of these tiny 100x30-foot lots remain privately owned by individuals all over the country and are spread out like a patch-work within the dunes where we play.
Alarmingly, 584 acres of La Grande Tract property that duners use is not owned by our park. This acreage is owned by the County of San Luis Obispo and has been leased since 1983. This is a great threat to our park as the county can terminate this lease with only 30 days notice. Oceano Dunes would lose one-third of its open riding area and nearly half of the camping space if that happened.
Earnest sand duning didn't begin until the mid 1950s. Among the very few yearning to climb dunes in automobiles were two friends, Jerry Miller and Roland Lanini, who are now in their 80s. I was lucky enough to meet Jerry and Roland in March.
Roland related a memorable jump: "We went over the top of a hill, and flew over a long way..."
Jerry laughed, "Two hats laying on the sand when we hit the bottom!"
The pair also recounted building a sand car for only $7 using a Model A Ford they found abandoned on the beach.
As Roland giggled, Jerry recounted: "We didn't make a battery box; we just tied it on with ropes. The ropes would break and he'd be driving down the beach and the battery would be bouncing along behind him."
Jerry is credited with building the first-ever sand rail. By shortening the drive shaft of his Model A pickup he moved the engine back nearly three feet to achieve drastically better weight distribution and traction. Soon everyone else was doing the same.
More and more people realized the fun that Jerry and Roland were having. Eventually an entirely new and wildly popular sport emerged-along with a unique culture.
Many threats exist that could partially or completely close Oceano Dunes. The tiny snowy plover shorebird is the most well-known. The Sierra Club already succeeded in closing nearly one mile of beach during the March-through-September plover nesting season.
Potential loss of the 584 acres of La Grande Tract dunes is a major future concern. Sierra Club members serving on the Grand Jury last year were able to bias a Grand Jury report on La Grande. The club now points to that report to influence politicians and an ongoing lawsuit.
Activists are also attempting to sway county decision makers and local opinion. One tiny faction produces a cable TV show that is solely anti-dunes and plays twice weekly. The show purports to uncover truth, but is highly distorted and lacking of facts.
Natural Air Pollution?
The latest and most ominous closure threat is one of a new sort. We're used to claims that we affect nature; this time, we are being blamed for nature!
Air blowing inland through sand dunes contains more dust and sand than air found elsewhere. Called particulate matter, or PM, this dust is the result of 500-million pounds of sand that is naturally deposited each year by the ocean and blown onshore. This is how coastal dunes come to exist.
If Oceano Dunes were anywhere else this natural dust wouldn't be an issue, but in California, air regulations specify PM levels can only be one-third of what is acceptable anywhere else in the country. This got the attention of air regulators who consider dune dust air pollution.
How could naturally occurring dust close Oceano Dunes? Air regulators have concocted a distorted theory that vehicles break-up an alleged "crust" on the dune surface, thus exposing loose dust to the wind. Never mind that geologists say there is no crust, the air specialists claim otherwise and have convinced more than one county supervisor to listen.
The air regulators also say vehicles have stripped the dunes of former vegetation which holds down the dune dust. They point to a single 1979 photo as proof. I, however, have obtained dozens of aerial photos back to 1930 which all show barren sand dunes.
Political support is very much needed to prevent false science from closing our park.
Keeping it Open
Just moments can go a long way toward keeping Oceano Dunes open. In less time than you've spent reading this so far you could have written a three-sentence email to the newspapers and politicians in San Luis Obispo County to express support. The email addresses you'll need can be found at www.yourdunes.org. You can also help by donating to Friends of Oceano Dunes (oceanodunes.org), which is a non-profit that has fought many legal battles and has prevented closures already. Think how much your equipment has cost or how much your sand sport business depends on open dune areas.
When you visit Oceano Dunes, the best support you can give is to be conscientious. Keep the revelry and fun within bounds. Pick up your trash (and anyone else's you see on the ground). Don't drive fast near others or make late-night noise (including loud generators). Be responsible! There are anti-OHV people out there with video cameras just watching.
Finally, know the rules! No glass bottles. Only split wood for fires is allowed (no lumber). No fireworks. All vehicles must have flags in the dunes. Don't do donuts. There's a 15-mph limit on the beach and around camps. No dogs off leash. And, an odd one: no kites (it can possibly scare the endangered birds).
The author, Kevin P. Rice, is a dirt-bike rider and local resident of San Luis Obispo who is involved daily with Oceano Dunes issues and advocacy. Kevin organizes an annual beach cleanup event at YourDunes.org to raise legal defense funds for Friends of Oceano Dunes. Please join and support them at OceanoDunes.org!