Oceano Dunes reveal complicated dance between coastal conservation and recreation

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Small quads, and dirt bikes, and luxury SUVs make their way through Oceano Dunes. The recreation area has dust mitigation tools, and sizable parts are fenced off to protect threatened species like the snowy plover. Off-roaders are adamant that they can responsibly pursue their pastime without causing significant harm to the unique natural setting. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW

For decades, Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area has been the only California site to allow off-roading on the shores of the Pacific and in a seaside slice of the Sahara. But that all-terrain vehicle action hinged on a temporary permit from the state. After almost 40 years, the California Coastal Commission decided conservation outweighed recreation and voted to phase out off-roading at the dunes over three years. Some in the area say it’s past due, but others are worried it will hobble the local economy and end family traditions that span generations.