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Man Vs. Nature
By Kerri Ginis
The Fresno Bee
Published 03/06/03 04:45:11

OCEANO -- Sand whips around the Hummer as it charges up the side of the steep dune and abruptly stops at the top of Independence Hill.
The massive vehicle lurches forward before accelerating down the sand dune. Although the ride lasts just a few seconds, the thrill resonates much longer for passengers.

Other off-road vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles and dune buggies, race nearby on the 31/2-mile stretch of beach at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

This popular recreation spot near Pismo Beach attracts 1.2 million people every year. More than half of the visitors are Valley residents.

The 1,500 acres of beach and sand dunes are the only area along the California coast where people can camp and drive their vehicles.

But that could change soon.

At a meeting Friday in San Luis Obispo, the California Coastal Commission will review the park's annual operating permit and may restrict riding or camping along the beach.

The reason is a small brown and white bird, the Western snowy plover, which lays its eggs in the sandy dunes. Environmentalists claim the vehicles are destroying the bird's habitat. The Sierra Club wants the beach closed to vehicles to protect the plover and two other endangered species living in the area -- the California least tern and the steelhead trout.

"It's just outrageous that we do not protect the species there," said Tarren Collins, chairwoman of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. "What they're doing there is not right."

The off-road vehicle enthusiasts see it differently. They claim the park's management is doing all it can to protect the Western snowy plover.

For the past two years, park officials fenced off portions of the riding area during the bird's nesting season, which runs from March to September. The fences allow the birds to lay their eggs in a protected area.

"We don't want to see the environmentalists close this park," said Clovis resident Larry Buckley, 62, who has been coming to Oceano Dunes for the past five years. "We've given in and allowed them to come in here and fence off these areas for these birds to nest. None of us are down here trying to run over these birds. We're out here to have fun and to recreate."

Saturday -- the first day of the plover's nesting season -- a few hundred people entered the front gates of the recreation area ready for a weekend of camping and riding. They were greeted by members of the Friends of Oceano Dunes -- a group of 10,000 committed to keeping the beach open to vehicles.

Some members held signs that read "Access for All" and "Save Our State Park: Stop the Sierra Club." Others asked visitors to sign petitions in support of keeping the beach open to vehicles.

It was an impromptu gathering to let riders know that access to the beach could be limited or closed completely.

Ray Smith, a supervising state park ranger at Oceano Dunes, says he believes the beach eventually will be closed to off-road vehicles.

"It may be three or four years, or it could be 20 years from now, but I think they will close it," he said. "It's getting harder and harder to keep the park open."

A staff report to be presented at Friday's Coastal Commission meeting doesn't recommend any further closures, coastal planner Steve Monowitz said. But, he added, the commissioners don't always follow the staff's recommendations.

Off-road vehicle riders who frequent the park say they're worried that commissioners will limit their access to the dunes. Over the past 20 years, their riding area has shrunk from 17 miles to 31/2 miles.

"This is the Central Valley's playground," said Fresno resident Gene Schroeder, who has been coming to Oceano Dunes for 35 years. "We're not after all the park to open, but we do want some space."

In 1975, the state Parks and Recreation Department acquired 3,600 acres of land that was designated as the recreation area. The park is within the 15,000-acre Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex, one of the most extensive coastal dunes in California.

Some of that acreage was restricted from motor-vehicle use in 1982 when the California Coastal Commission put 2,000 of the 3,600 acres into wildlife preserves. They've restricted other portions of the park since, and 1,500 acres remain open to riders.

To help decide whether more of the beach should be closed to vehicles, the commission formed a technical review team in 2001 to study the population of the plover over a three-year period. The team will determine what effect, if any, off-road vehicles have on their habitat.

The technical review team contracted with PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Conservation Science at Stinson Beach to monitor the plover population in the park.

During the first year of the study, 72 Western snowy plover chicks hatched in the park. But only two survived.

Those numbers alarmed the Sierra Club. They filed a federal lawsuit in November 2001 alleging that the state Department of Parks and Recreation is violating the federal Endangered Species Act because it is not protecting the habitat of the Western snowy plover, the California least tern and the steelhead trout. That lawsuit is pending.

In 2002, the second year of the study, park officials fenced off roughly 160 acres of the riding area during the plover's nesting season. Park officials also instituted a program in which it relocated the loggerhead shrike -- a predator of the plover -- outside the park.

That year, 56% of the plover chicks hatched in the park survived to fledging, the age when they could fly.

Gary Page, a scientist with PRBO, said one reason for the success of the 2002 nesting season was that park officials removed the shrikes.

"There was some pretty direct evidence that the predators were capturing and destroying the chicks," he said.

But environmentalists say that's not the only reason for the success. Collins maintains the birds were able to thrive because the fencing gave them a protected area where they could nest. In 2001, when only the two chicks survived, the park didn't erect any fences during the birds' nesting season.

This is the final year of the study, and more of the riding area has been fenced. Nearly 250 of the 1,500 acres are closed to vehicles and pedestrians from March to September. Signs in English and Spanish warn people not to enter the area or they will be fined $270.

Most riders obey the signs and stick to the area designated for camping and riding, park ranger Smith said. Occasionally, the wind will blow over parts of the chain-link fence, so rangers constantly monitor the beach to make sure the birds have a protected area.

Keeping a watchful eye on the riders isn't always easy. On holiday weekends, the park is usually at capacity with 1,000 campers.

But Smith said most of the park's visitors know how important the fences are: "They know if we don't do what we can to save the birds and keep the park open, it will close."

On a typical weekend at the dunes, pickup trucks hauling ATVs and dune buggies drive down the shore toward the beach's camping area. Many people sleep overnight on the beach in tents or RVs. They light campfires at night to stay warm.

Throughout much of the day, the area is filled with the sounds of revving engines as motorcycles and quads zoom up and down the nearby sand dunes. Most riders say it's a recreational sport the entire family can enjoy. Children as young as 6 can be seen riding their off-road vehicles up and down the dunes.

Seven-year-old Aaron Avila of Hanford got a Honda 90 quad for his birthday six months ago. His father, Mark, grew up vacationing at the dunes every summer and wanted his children to have the same experience.

"It was like a total surprise," Aaron said about his birthday present. "I was just, like, wow."

Aaron and several of his young friends spent Saturday riding around the dunes. He said when he first got his quad, it took him awhile to learn how to ride by himself. He says he usually follows his dad up the steepest hills.

"The first time I went out, my dad had to get off his bike every five seconds to try to get my bike out of the sand," Aaron said as he stood proudly near his quad. "I just kept getting stuck. I had horsepower. I just didn't have any momentum."

The Avila family was camping at the park for the weekend with about 40 other members of First Baptist Church of Hanford. Sunday morning, they planned to hold a short church service on the beach and spend the rest of the day riding on the dunes.

Most of the church members said they've heard that the beach could close. They say if more area is closed off, people won't keep coming to the dunes.

"Personally, I can understand that they want to protect the animals out here, but I think they're getting a little carried away with what they want to close down," said Daryl VanderVeen, 38, an electrical contractor from Hanford. "There really has to be a balance with everything."

Others agree and say they don't understand why the environmentalists won't let them have the remaining 1,500 acres of beach and dunes to ride on.

"There's room for everyone here," said Doug Silva, who was born and raised in Lemoore. "They just want to preserve and protect everything but not let people enjoy it. It's sad that it's gotten as bitter as it has."

The reporter can be reached at [email protected]obee.com or 622-2417.

IF YOU GO

What: California Coastal Commission meeting on Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

When: 9 a.m. Friday

Where: Embassy Suites Hotel, 333 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo

Details: (831) 427-4863

http://www.fresnobee.com/local/story/6320204p-7269787c.html
 
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