Snow plovers and buggies face off on a California beach

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What I’m about to tell you is not fake news. But you might have to read it twice to believe your eyes.

Rangers from the State Department of Parks and Recreation deliberately destroyed the nests of endangered shorebirds here to clear an expanse of environmentally sensitive beach and dunes for all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, who turn up in their thousands. , including a group called the Jerk Pirates.

So you think we might not be in California anymore, right?

Wrong. We are in San Luis Obispo County, just south of Pismo Beach, home to a decades-long tradition of sand buggies carving up the beautiful dunes and motorhomes driving down the beautiful beach.

A western snow plover, a bird that has dropped from tens of thousands to less than a thousand over the past 50 years, but can still be found in Oceano.

(Jim Greaves / Associated Press)

But as my mate Louis Sahagun reported two weeks ago, the war between off-roaders and environmentalists has intensified on the central California coast, since the popular off-road site was shut down there. has a few months because of COVID-19 with no date yet set for its reopening.

It was bad news for the Jerk Pirates, but good news for the Snow Plovers, who enlarged their nesting area when the dune buggies left, or at least they did until the guards foresters in the park are beginning to grow up Mother Nature. California Coastal Commission officials went into a frenzy and ordered state park officials to stop brushing plover nests, moving birds, and putting up stakes and flags to discourage breeding.

“The Coastal Act protects sensitive habitats, including beaches on which endangered species depend for their survival,” said Jack Ainsworth, Director of the Coastal Commission.

But the coastal commission also bears some responsibility here. In 1982, it was the commission that gave the Parks Department a license to operate California’s only designated all-terrain vehicle fleet at Oceano Dunes. The coastal agency has lived to regret the move and wants to phase out off-roading gradually, but even as state and federal agencies try to strike a deal, environmentalists and off-roaders are digging deeper.

Last week I was greeted by keen environmentalists waving signs when I arrived at Oceano Beach on a sunny, windy day. They pointed out that families drag coolers, chairs and umbrellas to the water’s edge and said you don’t see such a scene in normal times because when off-roaders are allowed the beach becomes a dangerous highway, scaring those interested in a smoother experience.

“It’s like the Old West,” said Bonnie Ernst, despite claims to the contrary from off-road riders, who say it’s a warm and friendly family tradition.

The enviros told me that the vehicles and their drivers stayed on the beach for days, plowing the waves and dunes late into the night and leaving behind mounds of garbage and broken bottles.

The air quality is so poor from the sand and silica stirred up, they said, that it is a serious health hazard in largely low-income agricultural areas near the shore.

Last year, according to reports, six people died in off-road crashes on the beach.

No wonder the plovers avoided the area.

Evelyn Delaney, former San Luis Obispo County Supervisor, handed me a copy of her recent testimony to the Coastal Commission, in which she offered her perspective on the situation.

“The mob that uses the dunes is a bunch of bullies…. They drive around in big pick-ups, flying Confederate flags, blowing up their engines. They don’t follow any rules. They are daredevils in the dunes.

So how could it be, here in a state that has made coastal conservation a civic duty and a moral imperative?

Some argue that the tradition, which began at Pismo Beach decades ago, is immensely popular, attracting 2 million visitors a year, injecting tens of millions of dollars into the local economy, and benefiting state parks through at a cost of use of the beach.

Well, excuse me, but we are talking about a natural wonder, a treasure and a fragile piece of a larger ecosystem that is under attack by human disturbance and the current reckless dismantling of the protection of the environment at the federal level.

Every bird, every insect and every clam counts. The temporary benefits of gasoline toys are not worth the lasting loss to the universe.

But it’s not just the parks department that doesn’t seem to understand. Talking about having to read something twice, I couldn’t believe the comment in Sahagun’s story by a spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“While we are delighted to see plovers stretch their legs to build nests in new places,” she said, “these new areas are unfavorable as they are designated for in-car recreation when open. to the public”.

With friends like this in the US government, fish and wildlife don’t need enemies. If these new areas are so “unfavorable”, why not just bring back the off-roaders and let them plow the nests? Or why not distribute hunting rifles and turn the dunes into a game reserve?

A small, very small part of me says that in a state where the wealthy have cordoned off beach access and beach views, an off-road beach area is one way to break that hold. But park the platforms on the sidewalk, enjoy the beach on a skimboard or boogie board, and let the dunes be sculpted by nature rather than churned wheels.

When I contacted the state park administrators for comment, they did not respond. Instead, they handed me over to their boss, Mark Gold, executive director of the state’s Ocean Protection Council. Gold’s credentials as an environmentalist and marine biologist are beyond reproach, but he admitted he was stuck in a tight spot on this issue, and said he had just hung up with 25 state and federal officials trying to understand how to do it.

Gold said playing with plover nests “should never have happened.” Birds, he said, were just doing what they did naturally for hundreds, if not thousands of years, before humans got in their way. The plover’s nesting season runs from March through September, Gold said, and the state tries to protect nesting activity during this time.

And now what?

It’s not clear, Gold said, and it’s complicated. If an all-terrain vehicle fleet were offered today, that would never happen, Gold said.

But the state hopes to have a plan by the end of the year that takes into account competing desires and goals. And what could such a plan look like?

“That remains to be seen,” Gold said.

Well, good luck, because just as environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand, so have off-roaders, who say they’ve made a lot of concessions and seen their designated park area shrink over the years.

This quote from one of the off-roaders makes it clear that compromise is not on the agenda: “We are the endangered species here,” said Danny Hensley, 51, who said that he had been off-roading on the beach since he was a simple boy.

He and his wife, Lea, live in Oceano and have a business that sells ropes used to pull stuck vehicles out of the sand. Danny said that’s where the name Jerk Pirates came from, a social group now 6,000 strong.

Danny admits seeing a few Confederate flags on the beach, but also Mexican flags, gay pride flags and people of all kinds.

“You see all religions, all nationalities, gay, straight, transgender – everyone and everyone gets along,” said Lea, who told me whether she had to choose between vacationing in Hawaii or vacationing in Hawaii. Oceano, she would go with the dunes.

She and her husband said the accusations about litter, poor air quality and general chaos on the beach were all lies, though others dispute it.

And they invited me to spend a few nights on the beach to see for myself what it is like there, if the off-roaders are ever allowed to come back.

Me, an honorary Jerk Pirate? I don’t quite get the thrill of it, nor would I look forward to digging sand through every hole. But I accepted the invitation and I will tell you how it goes – if it goes.

I did make it clear to the Hensleys, however, that I don’t think RVs should be allowed near a 1,100-mile coast that is one of the world’s greatest marine habitats, and shame on the State’s he’s not closing the destruction derby for good.

In this fight, I am for the birds.

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