The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in the southern region of San Luis Obispo County is a destination for off-roading enthusiasts across the United States. It is the only state park in California that allows off-highway vehicles (OHV) to roam its sandy hills and camp overnight. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the park was closed to off-roaders. While it was a disappointment to those who travel to the dunes for OHV recreation, it was a breath of fresh air for others to enjoy the beach without the off-roaders.

Bonnie Ernst, a resident of Oceano and a founding member of the Oceano Beach Community Association, said that the seven-month suspension of OHV access on the dunes provided an “incredibly rare opportunity” to see what the beach would be like without so much vehicle activity.

“It was such a difference, it was so amazing,” Ernst said. “People came and we would see kids running on the beach. You never would see kids running on the beach before … you got to go down and see just what an amazing park it would be.”

40-year-old conflict coming to a head

Ever since the state park was first established back in 1982, there have been conflicts over the presence of OHVs and their impacts on the surrounding environment and community. These issues range from the danger of off-roading, OHVs’ impacts on air quality, disruption of threatened or endangered bird populations, and debate over the economic impact of OHV tourism. 

On March 18, 2021, California Coastal Commission will meet virtually to discuss the future of the vehicles on the dunes. The state park will present their Draft Public Works Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report with the hopes that they will get approval to drastically expand OHV boundaries on the dunes. 

At that same meeting, Ernst said she and other conservationists will have a chance to voice their opposition to the expansion and to the presence of OHVs on the dunes as a whole.

The meeting will open up to public comment and community members can share their thoughts there. She also said it has become increasingly rare for the California Coastal Commission to address the conflict of the OHVs presence on the dunes, making this meeting even more important for community members to attend.

“Nobody wants to touch this because it is such a divisive issue,” Ernst said.

OHV impact on wildlife

Conservationists have raised concerns over the OHVs impact on two bird species that nest on the dunes; the endangered California least tern and the western snowy plover. 

The state park makes an effort to protect the bird populations by sectioning off a 300-acre area for nesting away from OHVs during their breeding season, according to the park’s website. This, however, is not enough, conservationists say.

Courtesy | Bonnie Ernst

Gianna Patchen is a biology senior at Cal Poly and an intern for the Sierra Club’s local Santa Lucia chapter. She acts as the club’s representative in People for the Dunes, an advocacy group for the conservation of the dune ecosystems and for the local community. Patchen said that although the OHVs and the birds have been able to coexist for the past 40 years, the OHVs on the dunes restrict the bird populations from becoming what they could be.

During the 7-month closure of the park to OHVs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the snowy plovers were able to move beyond their protected boundaries and began nesting all over the dunes. 

“In my mind, that’s pretty direct proof that the vehicles are inhibiting the success of this population of Western snowy plovers,” Patchen said. “They really do have the potential to thrive even more.”

Air quality concerns

Another concern conservationists raised is OHV’s impact on air quality in the area. Patchen said the vehicles cause air quality issues for the local community by causing increased dust emissions. 

Some might think that the OHVs negatively impact the air by kicking up a lot of dust from driving around, which is actually a common misconception according to an FAQ from the San Luis Obispo County’s Air Pollution Control District. The OHVs’ actual impact on air quality in the area is caused by the erosion and re-shaping of the dune mounds, which allows wind to create more dust emissions according to the FAQ.

The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District has received 133 complaints from residents who live downwind of the dunes, according to a report

Residents said they have had “difficulty breathing, respiratory issues, exacerbation of pre-existing conditions such as asthma and COPD, watery and stinging eyes, and other adverse effects” because of the dust emissions from the dunes.

These increased dust emissions have become an environmental justice issue, said Patchen, since the population of Oceano is primarily Hispanic or Latinx, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Anytime we see communities of color being disproportionately impacted by environmental issues—red flags immediately,” Patchen said.


In 2019, the safety of off-roading activities on the dunes came into question with a record of six deaths in one year from OHV related accidents. Additionally, a shooting occurred at an un-permitted concert for offroaders on the dunes in May of 2019. Six people were sent to the hospital and five people sustained gunshot wounds, according to a press release from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. 

Patchen also said that it is dangerous for people to go on the dunes in general if you’re not in a vehicle. She said that drivers are only supposed to go 15 mph on the beach, but that speed limit is frequently disregarded by drivers.

“So basically…accessibility is only for vehicles,” Patchen said.

Courtesy | Bonnie Ernst

Does the community depend on the income from OHV tourism?

Another topic of debate has emerged on whether or not the loss of OHV tourism in the area will affect the local economy. 

Cal Poly associate professor Pratish Patel found in a non-peer-reviewed study that the loss of OHV tourism during the park’s shutdown during the pandemic had “no significant impact” on the local economy. The report said that beach-going tourists began coming to Oceano to explore the dunes, which were now safe to walk on since the OHVs were not allowed for the 7-month closure period. 

While the tourists that come for off-roading typically camp along the beach, these new tourists instead stayed in hotels, creating a new source of revenue for the community according to Patel’s study.

Patchen said it’s exciting to see that there are alternate options to keep the local economy afloat other than OHV tourism.

“They’d be able to become a beach town and have a flourishing boardwalk and all that kind of stuff, which actually doesn’t really exist very much right now,” Patchen said.

Courtesy | Bonnie Ernst

Perspectives from OHV enthusiasts

Jim Suty, founder and president of the off-roading group Friends of Oceano Dunes, said the income the OHVs bring to the dunes provides a “financial engine” to help the breeding program of the Western snowy plovers and the California least tern flourish and helps to protect the birds from predators.

“We actually have the most successful breeding program in the entire West Coast at the Oceano Dunes,” Suty said. “For anybody to say otherwise, is not using the data and is speaking on emotion.”

He also touched on Patel’s economic report, saying that he believes the report did not come to the right conclusion.

“The Chamber of Commerce are reaching out to us to try to figure out how they can get tourism back as soon as possible,” Suty said. “They wouldn’t be reaching out to us to get it reinstated and get it back if there wasn’t a financial impact.”

Mike McGarity is a long-time OHV enthusiast and a board member of Friends of Oceano Dunes. He and his family have been traveling to the dunes to use their off-roading vehicles and to recreate for years.

“We all go there to camp and OHV recreate in our own personal way. We make amazing memories and we make long lasting friendships as well. We truly relax, we recreate and we appreciate our Oceano Dunes.”

McGarity said the people that break the rules on the dunes, such as the speed limit, should have consequences or be kicked out of the park entirely. He also said he hopes that people can realize that the Oceano Dunes are the only place on the California coast where people can go off-roading.

“This is the only little, small coast area for OHV. Thousands of OHV enthusiasts enjoy and come to Oceano Dunes to recreate,” McGarity said. “Why isn’t it important that OHV doesn’t have equal rights to their form of recreation as everyone else in California?”

Will the conflict ever be solved?

Both conservationists and OHV users have expressed that they wish there could be some compromise on the issue, but stand firm in their opinions.

“I welcome them to sit down across the table with me and let’s have the discussion,” OHV enthusiast Jim Suty said. “Let’s look at the data together and let’s discuss the arguments and the concerns and see how we can work together to try to find some common peace.”

Sierra Club intern Gianna Patchen recognized the difficulty for OHV users to lose something they love and said she thinks a compromise is possible with the right communication and sacrifices from both sides. She said she finds it difficult, however, to see how it is worth it to keep OHV vehicles.

“I really understand not wanting to lose something that you find joy in…access to our outdoor spaces and enjoyment of our outdoor spaces is so important,” Patchen said. “But it’s really hard for me personally to reconcile doing that at the expense of human health and environmental health.”

Conservationist Bonnie Ernst said she thinks it’s too tough of an issue for the Coastal Commission and state park to solve.

“To me, it’s gonna get settled in the courts,” Ernst said. “So let’s just get it to the courts and figure it out.”

For more information and updates on the upcoming California Coastal Commision meeting on March 18, visit their website or follow @dunes.alliance on Instagram.

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