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Birds vs. dune riders
A popular beach faces more limits
By Kerri Ginis -- The Fresno Bee
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, March 12, 2003
SAN LUIS OBISPO -- The state already limits public access to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area from March through September to protect the habitat of a small brown-and-white bird.
Now it must decide if it will close off even more of the beach that's designated for riding and camping.

An additional half-mile of beach could be closed to campers and riders this spring under a recommendation by the California Coastal Commission.

Commissioners last week voted in favor of fencing a larger portion of the beach to protect the habitat of the Western snowy plover during its nesting season.

The decision will be made by the state Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the popular recreation spot near Pismo Beach.

"It's something we're already considering," said Rick LeFlore, a senior park and recreation specialist. "I can't tell you what the outcome will be, but we are considering it."

Environmentalists with the Sierra Club say the Coastal Commission's recommendation is a victory for the Western snowy plover, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Fans of all-terrain vehicles and campers see it differently.

"I think it's horrible," said Chris Buford of Fresno. "This is going to be a huge impact on camping at the beach."

More than half of the 1.2 million people who visit Oceano Dunes every year live in the Central Valley.

Since 1971, when the park was designated as a vehicular recreation area, off-road enthusiasts have battled with environmentalists over access to the beach. Over the years, the riding and camping range has diminished from 18 miles to 3 1/2 miles.

"It really is beneficial for these birds to have more room," said Commissioner Sara Wan. "When you limit the area for these birds, you just set them up as prey."

During the three-hour meeting, commissioners listened to testimony from people who spoke for and against closing the beach to vehicles. Members of the Sierra Club held signs that read "Protect Our Coast" and "Plover Peace" as they asked the commission to protect the plover's habitat.

Proponents of limiting vehicular access also argue that the action would benefit two other endangered species -- the California least tern and the steelhead trout.

"The most important question here never gets answered, and that is: How would the birds do without vehicles driving on their habitat?" said Mark Massara, a Sierra Club representative.

"Let's pull our heads out of the sand ... and acknowledge we're dooming our plovers."

In 2001, the Coastal Commission formed a technical review team to study the plover's population at Oceano Dunes over a three-year period. During the first year of the study, 72 plovers hatched but only two survived.

That statistic prompted the Sierra Club to file a federal lawsuit alleging the Parks and Recreation Department is violating the Endangered Species Act by not protecting the plover's habitat.

Settlement talks are under way. Park officials say a resolution could be reached in a month or two.

Off-road enthusiasts argue that the plover's population increased in 2002. That year, park officials fenced 160 acres of the 1,500-acre camping and riding area. In addition, another bird, the loggerhead shrike -- a predator of the plover -- was relocated outside the park.

Roughly 56 percent of the plovers that hatched in the park that year survived to fledging, the age when they could fly.

"Oceano Dunes has been doing far more than any other beach on the coast to protect the plover, and yet we continue to put it under a microscope and analyze it," said Jim Suty of San Jose, president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, a 26,000-member organization committed to keeping the beach open to riding and camping.

"We're all environmentalists here; we're not out to kill the birds or destroy their habitat," said Tulare resident Bruce Swanson. "But I think it's an unbalanced situation. We need our space, too."

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