Ride the Deadly Dunes

Oceano California
special to ESM
by joey racano

Central California’s Oceano Dunes seem a relic from another age, where one almost expects a herd of Camels to appear just over the next dramatic rise. But of late, the drama at Oceano doesn’t end with the scenery.  Where winds drive sandy squalls that twist like miniature tornados, visitors numbering in the tens of thousands on a single day drive off-road vehicles and are causing some squalls of their own.

From the borders of Mexico to Oregon, Oceano is unique for more than its biodiversity- it is the only beach habitat in California where off-roading is now permitted. There is a race event held there that has benefitted charity. But that race recently produced a fatality. And several weeks ago, a child was killed under the wheels of a pickup. And the deaths just keep coming. A 24 year-old mother of two was run down and killed only a week ago and alcohol is a suspected factor.

There is also a pitched battle for water-quality on the so-called ‘Dunes of Death’. The State Water Resource Control Board recently mandated a program of testing for contaminants in the sandy soil in response to activists concerns that a large number of dunes visitors are draining their sewage and oil into the sand. Indeed, a video circulated on YOUTUBE showed what appeared to be just that.

The State Department of Parks and Recreation (formerly known simply as ‘State Parks’) has been in no great hurry to change things, despite the onslaught of fatalities. With 1.4 million visitors  having almost doubled to 2.5 million visitors in just the past four years, revenue has been enormous.

Drunken visitors recently used an accelerant to blow up one of the few restrooms available, to which State Parks responded by attempting to replace the porta-pottys with more and permanent structures. Because of existing ordinance to protect the much-loved but seemingly doomed Pismo Clam, construction of such structures may prove to be illegal.


There are also huge concerns among area residents of the large amount of air pollution generated at Oceano as well as apparent damage to area creeks and their wildlife. These issues were the topic of discussion at the most recent meeting of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, where an appeal of the construction of permanent restroom structures was brought by a group of activists. Further legal challenges remain, including an appeal to the California Coastal Commission.

While some activists on both sides of this competing-use issue seek a compromise, such as construction of a trail system for off-roaders that might spare the Dunes, her marine mammals, water quality and the Pismo Clam, further conflict -and human fatalities- seem sure to continue, as long as people ride the deadly dunes.

Joey Racano

Photo Credit:  Dunes in Winter: by Verona Rebow   Seal/Humvee by : Chrissy Camp

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