Tucked into an otherwise quiet bend south of Pismo Beach, Oceano Dunes may be California’s most dangerous state park. Towns near the park, which draws more than a million trucks and dirt bikes a year, are besieged with air pollution, crime and accidents — even a mass shooting last year.

Dave Congalton always turns right at the beach.

The local radio host, who has lived near Oceano Dunes for 33 years, leads an informal group of hikers and beach walkers. His pack usually heads north, away from the tumult of off-road vehicles that descend on the state park. 

One morning a few years ago, Congalton and his group paused at their usual starting place and decided to take a chance: They turned left.

“We lasted 10 minutes,” Congalton said.  “We turned around and left. It was noisy and congested and the smell was overwhelming. We called it Bizarro Beach.”

In March, the cacophony at Oceano Dunes was put on mute when twin orders spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and protection of rare nesting shorebirds closed the state park to off-roaders for seven months. 

Congalton saw an opportunity to explore a stretch of his local beach that had always been so unwelcoming: crossing the park’s Sand Highway, which funnels racing off-roaders into the dunes, was like walking through  a demolition derby. 

“Once the ban kicked in, I was there two mornings a week,” he said. “It was a beach again. We’d take morning walks, there were no crowds… I’m hearing the waves, I’m hearing the birds. I’m hearing the quiet.”

Anywhere else, it might have been just another day at the beach. But the peaceful scene this summer was anything but typical at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

The conflict over the state park has cleaved communities in an otherwise bucolic part of the Central Coast known as the Five Cities, where people are entrenched on opposite sides of not just a recreational divide, but also their visions of the future of the region’s poorest communities.

Oceano Dunes is one of only nine state parks in California established expressly for motorized recreation. During normal operations, the park is visited by about 1.5 million visitors a year, with thousands of all-terrain vehicles a day motoring across 3,600 acres of sand. Its beach is more the province of dune buggies and monster trucks than a haven for sun and surf worshippers.

The towns that are gateways to Oceano Dunes may get some economic benefit but they also bear the brunt of everything else the park’s off-roaders generate: choking dust and air pollution, violent crimes, thousands of emergency calls and hundreds of accidents every year. 

Tucked into an otherwise quiet bend south of Pismo Beach, Oceano Dunes may be the most dangerous state park in California. Last year alone, there was a mass shooting at the park, six deaths from accidents and hundreds of injuries. Park rangers made 49 felony arrests, including some for gang-related activity, assault and rape, in 2018.

While the vast majority of off-roaders are law abiding and courteous while visiting the park, powerful engines, vacation enthusiasm and alcohol sometimes combust to create a potent brew.  

The calm before and after the storm

Biologists have long contemplated what the delicate dune system would look like if the vehicles vanished. They found out this summer during the shutdown: Nature caught its breath, birds and other wildlife reclaimed their habitat and local residents rediscovered the recreational gem at their doorstep. 

Even Central Coast natives who had previously only entered the park from behind the wheel of a souped-up vehicle are reveling in the transformation.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise for me,” said Jeanette Trompeter, who grew up riding off-road vehicles in the dunes. 

On a recent summer day Trompeter rode bikes with friends on the broad, nearly-empty beach. 

“I have been here, but always in a truck. I’ve never walked the dunes. It’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. What an amazing place.”

Jeanette Trompeter, who grew up riding off road vehicles at Oceano Dunes, has enjoyed exploring the beach as a pedestrian now that vehicles are barred from the dunes. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters
Jeanette Trompeter, who grew up riding off-road vehicles at Oceano Dunes, enjoyed exploring the beach on her bicycle when vehicles were barred from the dunes In July as part of pandemic precautions. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

The brief experiment is now over. The park began a phased reopening on Oct. 30, starting with access for 1,000 vehicles daily during restricted hours.  

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it like it was,” Congalton said, “but I’m sad because I saw what it could be like.”

During the closure, there was no cease fire between the two sister state agencies that remain locked in a battle over the park’s future.

The Coastal Commission says off-road recreation is incompatible with state law and harmful to the health and safety of nearby communities and wildlife. After decades of no resolution, the commission in June issued a cease and desist order ordering the parks agency to stop harming imperiled birds because it violates the Coastal Act. In contrast, park officials have signaled they not only intend to continue to allow motorized recreation, but to expand riding into new areas of the park. 

Playground or battleground?

Forty years of acrimony has left a hard crust on the town of Oceano, which is right next to the park. Often called the gateway to the dunes, some residents say the town is more of a doormat, a place visitors roar through on their way to the sand.

“We get the trash, we get the noise and we get the traffic, and we don’t get the use of the beach,” said Bonnie Ernst, an activist with the Oceano Beach Community Association

Oceano residents have to cope with the vehicle accidents and crime in the park, and whatever misbehavior seeps into town. Through county taxes, they fund some emergency response within the park. They pay for daily removal of tons of sand banked against their curbs or blown into their homes through a breach carved into the dunes to allow vehicles to access the beach. And they breathe in the clouds of dust, which on some days cloak the area in the nation’s worst particle pollution.

Oceano is an unincorporated coastal community of about 7,800 people, mostly Latino, and about one in five of its residents lives below the federal poverty line. The town, less affluent than its neighbors and with lower property values, has no pricey beachfront hotels or trendy restaurants. Off-roaders sometimes patronize local businesses — equipment rental companies and tow truck operators that line Pier Avenue, a bleak asphalt path to the park gates.

The park’s economic benefit to San Luis Obispo County has been estimated at $243 million a year, although that study, funded by the state parks agency, has been criticized by an academic researcher for overstating the impact. 

A sign for Off Roaders United, an organization supporting the right to operate off highway vehicles on dunes, mountains and trails across California, outside of a local fishing and souvenir shop in Oceano Beach on July 21, 2020. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters
A sign for Off Roaders United, an organization supporting the right to operate off-highway vehicles on the dunes, is posted at a local fishing and souvenir shop in Oceano Beach on July 21, 2020. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

The battle over the public land has at times turned nasty. Some off-roaders have lashed out on social media, calling the town a “ghetto,” making lurid comments about anti-off-road activists and even sending death threats. Some off-road groups have flown Confederate flags during rallies. 

“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are 60% Latino. We are working class people who barely have any free time,” said Allene Villa, who lives in Oceano. “We have one small little community park, this beach could be our recreational area, but we can’t use it safely. It’s like a freeway.”

But the vitriol has flowed both ways. Lovers of motorized recreation have been demeaned as rednecks, thugs and, in what they consider the ultimate California put-down, “white trash from the Central Valley.” Off-roading has been derided alternatively as a low-class pastime or the province of entitled out-of-towners whose idea of camping is bedding down in a $100,000 fifth-wheel outfitted with a flat screen TV and full kitchen with granite countertops.

It’s an age-old battle to claim the virtuous recreational high ground: Hikers versus mountain bikers, sailboats versus motorboats, cross-country skiers versus snowmobilers. Exploring a beach under human power versus astride a motorized machine.

“This has little to do with the dunes and more to do with the form of recreation,” said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association

“We don’t close down I-5 because some people speed. We allow for idiots and give out tickets. We understand that there is going to be a (reckless) component. The reality is that every form of recreation has an impact on the ground.”

Living with plumes of dust

When Linda Adams and her husband were looking for somewhere to retire in 2008, their number one priority was to live in a community with clean air. They scoured the internet to gauge its air quality the way some prospective home buyers check out school districts.

Adams, 72, a lifelong asthmatic, had vacationed along the Central Coast and enjoyed the fresh sea breezes. The couple bought a house in Nipomo and settled into what looked to be a perfect planned community. They golfed and enjoyed walking their three dogs.

Then the spring winds came, dust plumes coming off Oceano Dunes barreled toward their subdivision, at least a dozen miles away. Adams grew short of breath and her chest was tight. Her usual medications weren’t enough; she had to reach for a “rescue inhaler.”

The couple adapted. They bought an expensive air conditioning system with HEPA filters. She checked online air quality monitors before planning her days, especially in the summer, which is high season for off-roading.

“I know people in our community who have never had problems before are now having them. We’ve had quite a few friends who moved because of this,” she said. 

Adams, a retired psychologist, is familiar with the common retort from off-roaders: If you don’t like it here, why don’t you move? 

“To that I say, ‘Respiration before recreation.’  It’s more important to breathe than to ride dune buggies.”

Wind and a dusty haze obscure the view of coastal hills from south of the Pismo Pier on August 21, 2019. That day, the average level of particulate pollution in the air was twice the level considered to be unhealthy by the World Health Organization. Photo by David Middlecamp, San Luis Obispo Tribune
Wind and a dusty haze obscure the coastal hills from south of the Pismo Pier on August 21, 2019. That day, the average level of particulate pollution in the air was twice the level considered to be unhealthy by the World Health Organization. Photo by David Middlecamp, San Luis Obispo Tribune

A San Luis Obispo grand jury concluded that the dust kicked up by more than a million annual visitors at the dunes poses a significant health risk to local residents.

Local air-quality officials say Adams and other townspeople are breathing air that violates federal health standards in part because of the off-roading. 

The region sometimes records the nation’s worst air quality for PM10, coarse particles linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, according to the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District. Its air violates state health standards dozens of times a year, said Karl Tupper, a senior air quality scientist with the district.

For instance, airborne particles in Nipomo — where Adams lives — exceeded the health limits 51 times in 2019 and 91 times the year before that, he said. That means they breathe unhealthful air an average of once or twice every week.

After years of missed deadlines to clear the air, the air district issued a dust-abatement order to the state parks department in 2017. It was the first step in a stipulated order to reduce dust emissions from the park by 50% by 2023. In October, the agency authorized the park to figure out dust-control measures, such as fencing, and install them on 90 acres of dunes by next spring.  

“Respiration before recreation. It’s more important to breathe than to ride dune buggies.”

linda adams, nipomo resident

“If you already have pulmonary issues and you move to a sandy coastal environment, it’s probably not a good idea in the first place.”

Lyndi Love-Haning, nipomo resident

The conflict over the dust touched off a scientific arms race. The park spent nearly a half-million dollars to study whether marine algae, not off-roading, is the culprit.

Also, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, commissioned by the parks department, analyzed air samples collected in April and May, when the park was closed to vehicles. They found, in part, that the particles are more likely from natural sources than dune riding. Local air regulators questioned the results. 

To some, the argument that there’s lots of sand and dust at the beach is silly, like complaining about leaves falling in a forest.

“It’s windy. It’s sandy. We live on sand,” said Lyndi Love-Haning, who moved to Nipomo in part to enjoy off-roading at Oceano Dunes. “If you already have pulmonary issues and you move to a sandy coastal environment, it’s probably not a good idea in the first place.”

Lyndi Love-Haning says sand in the air is part of living near the beach and isn’t concerned by it. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters
Lyndi Love-Haning, who lives in Nipomo, says particulate pollution in the air around the dunes is part of living near the beach and isn’t concerned by it. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

Vitriol and violence

Cynthia Replogle moved to Oceano three years ago, feeling lucky to be able to afford a home so close to the ocean. But the first time she took her dog for a walk on the beach she was taken aback by the streams of vehicles on the sand. 

“I had no idea that was even a thing,” she said.

Replogle was elected to the board of the unincorporated town’s Community Services District and joined a local group concerned about the damage to the dunes, the wildlife and the safety of Oceano.

Cynthia Replogle moved to the area three years ago and quickly become a target after becoming involved in local efforts to protect the dunes. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters
Cynthia Replogle moved to the area three years ago and quickly become a target after becoming involved in local efforts to protect the dunes. Photo by Brittany App for CalMatters

Clear about her progressive views, Replogle quickly became a target in the area’s culture wars. Her home address was published online. Some threatened to hack her accounts. She was attacked on social media by local and even national off-road enthusiasts. Some threatened to run her over, kill her and rape her. 

Replogle, 55, used to jog along an isolated stretch of a creek. Now she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so, and she’s beefed up her home security system.

The park’s rowdiness is well-documented. 

The county grand jury investigated the impact on the county from providing services to the park, estimating that there were 5,800 emergency calls each year. In 2018 park rangers issued 1,000 citations, according to park officials. Last year, 237 vehicle accidents occurred in the park, including 44 that caused severe injuries. 

And crime numbers are trending up, according to the grand jury report.

Last year was especially deadly: Six people were killed in vehicle accidents at the park. A gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon, injuring five people at an unpermitted beach concert in May of 2019 attended by about 1,000 people.

“Obviously, we want the state parks experience to be as safe for everyone as possible,” said Mark Gold, executive director of the California Ocean Protection Council, who is trying to negotiate a truce between the two state agencies. 

“I don’t think you are going to find anywhere (else in the state park system) where there’s six deaths a year,” he said. “We have to do better. It’s a priority.”

Granat, with the state off-roading association, said the parks department needs to beef up its enforcement of Oceano’s safety rules.

“The rules are only as good as the enforcement,” said Granat, who helped create the off-road regulations. “The (riding) community wants increased rangers, increased education and increased accountability at the park. We want a return to the family atmosphere that used to exist at the park.”

A cash cow for the state?

The parks department’s unwavering fidelity to off-roading may be traced to its unique source of funding. Unlike California’s nearly 300 other parks, the nine set aside for vehicles are funded almost entirely by off-road receipts: license fees from the vehicles, entrance fees from the parks and a portion of gas taxes that everyone pays at the pump.

That money is deposited in the state’s Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, which provides off-road areas with much more operational funding than other parks even though they have fewer visitors. 

For example, Oceano Dunes had about a third of the visitors as the state’s most popular park and five times the budget in 2017-18. California’s most-visited state park in that period was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, with more than 4 million visitors and annual expenditures of $1,274,284. By comparison, Oceano Dunes, with 1.3 million visitors, was, by far, the best-funded of the top ten parks, with $6,373,326 in annual expenditures.

Nathan Sedlaczek, 13, rides a quad with his family at Oceano Dunes SRVA on March 24, 2014. Photo by David Middlecamp, San Luis Obispo Tribune
Nathan Sedlaczek, 13, rides an ATV with his family at Oceano Dunes SRVA on March 24, 2014. Photo by David Middlecamp, San Luis Obispo Tribune

California’s Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot is adamant that the fund “is not a cash cow for the department.”

But the specificity of the source of funding gives off-roaders a sense of ownership. Kitten Chapman, a recreational riding advocate, scolded the Coastal Commission recently: “Off-roaders continue to pay for this land and you continue to take it away from us.”

A line in the sand

Bits of California history have traipsed across these dunes. The Northern Chumash Tribe settled here. Then the 20th Century ushered in a free-for-all on the beach: Cars and motorcycles raced around. In the 1920s, a ragtag group of mystics, hermits and artists settled in the area. Calling themselves the Dunites, the group sought to create a utopia and erected a community of ramshackle cabins.

A Don’t Tread on Me attitude lingers in the region. Jennifer Andrade, testifying at a recent Coastal Commission hearing, spoke for many who say they will not accept limits to motorized recreation at Oceano, foreshadowing a potential standoff in the sand.

“We the people are ready to storm our beaches, set up shop and claim back the land in protest,” she told the Commission. “Are you ready to arrest thousands of us?”

Granat disavowed threats of violence, but acknowledged the “visceral hate” emanating from all sides. Even as she seeks to lower the temperature, Granat vowed to fight any attempt to limit or end dune riding at the park.

“Will we look at legal options? Absolutely. Will we take advantage of anything available to us to fight for the rights of off roaders? Absolutely,” she said.

Love-Haning said it’s not too late for the community to heal.

“We can find common ground,” she said. “What that means for the future of the park, I’m not sure.”

Armando Quintero, who was appointed director of the state parks agency in August, isn’t sure, either. He said some of that bitterness has been directed his way: He has an email folder packed with more than 4,000 missives on the topic from both sides.

“It’s taken so long to fester,” Quintero said, “it’s going to take a long time to reconcile.”

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...