The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday agreed to keep open the only beach in Southern and Central California where off-road vehicles can race along the water's edge, despite objections from environmentalists that the traffic threatens the survival of an endangered shorebird.
Before adopting any more restrictions, the commission will wait for a panel of advisors to study the dunes near Pismo Beach and recommend how to better separate dune buggies and off-road bikes from the western snowy plover that nests on the beach.
"The commission decided to go with the status quo," said Chairwoman Sara Wan. "We decided to give it a couple of more years and see if it can work."
The commission's decision comes as the Oceano Dunes State Recreation Area, formerly called Pismo Dunes, is preparing for the Memorial Day invasion of dirt bikes, sand rails, Jeeps and trucks that congregate there every three-day weekend.
Last year, 47,500 people showed up for the long weekend that kicks off the summer, and state park rangers expect a similar showing.
Off-roaders from throughout California prefer the magnificent seaside dunes in the summer, when other popular off-road destinations in the desert get too hot.
Under the Coastal Commission's permit, the state beach limits traffic to 4,300 vehicles a day. But the limit is lifted for the weekends attached to Memorial and Labor days, July 4 and Thanksgiving.
Last November, the Sierra Club sued the California Department of Parks and Recreation on grounds that by permitting the beach traffic, state officials are causing the deaths of federally protected species and destroying their habitat.
In addition to the snowy plover, Oceano Dunes is home to another endangered shorebird, the least tern. A creek that off-road vehicles must cross to get to the beach has been known to harbor endangered steelhead trout.
"It's a shameful embarrassment for the state to allow the imminent extinction of the snowy plover," said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's coastal program. "Our actions may be too late, but we couldn't live with ourselves if we didn't try."
This week, the Pacific Legal Foundation and a group of off-road enthusiasts called Friends of the Oceano Dunes sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that it illegally designated the dunes and miles of other coastal areas as "critical habitat" for the plovers by failing to consider economic impacts.
"We want to force the government to adhere to Congress' intent, and the intent was to consider the effect on people," said Russell Brooks, attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that designating the area as plover habitat did not result in any economic impact, he said.
But his clients maintain that if the beach is closed, it will result in the loss of $110 million to the area's economy contributed by the more than 1 million off-road enthusiasts who visit San Luis Obispo County every year.
"The handwriting is pretty well on the wall for the final order shutting down the beach and the dunes," Brooks said.
The suit was filed this week, in advance of the Coastal Commission's annual review of the permit for off-road vehicles to use the beach.
Busloads of off-roaders packed the commission hearing in Santa Rosa, drawn by e-mail alerts saying the commission would place more of the beach off limits or close it to vehicles altogether.
Although the commission has the power to do so, such an action was not on the agenda.
Instead, the board kept the same restrictions as last year, which limits off-road vehicles to about a third of the 3,500-acre state park.
Fewer than 1,000 plovers, a once-abundant shorebird, remain in California. A biologist found nests of 33 pairs in 2001 at Oceano Dunes, one of the few nesting grounds in the state not lost to development.