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With plover violations skyrocketing, annual closures may return to Surf Beach
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With plover violations skyrocketing, annual closures may return to Surf Beach

From the What you need to know for Monday, August 24 series

While many in and around the Lompoc community reveled in last year’s announcement that Surf Beach was essentially guaranteed to remain open this year for the first time since 2000, Lompoc’s top city official warned this week that those celebrations could be short-lived.

Lompoc City Manager Jim Throop, who played a significant role in having the beach kept open for recreational access throughout the 2020 breeding season for the federally-protected Western snowy plover, said Tuesday that people were continuing to disturb the nesting areas of the bird species and that the beach's status could once again be in jeopardy.

“We worked hard to get Surf Beach back open, but we have some issues,” Throop said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Lompoc City Council.

For the past 19 years, officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base have closed the beach if and when the number of violations to the birds’ nesting area surpassed 50 during the nesting season, which lasts from March through September. But last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at the request of the city of Lompoc and many of its residents, permitted VAFB to keep the beach open this year.

The plover nesting areas continue to be monitored, however, and the violation totals still are being reported to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Throop said that, as of Tuesday, there had been 120 plover violations at the beach. That’s more than twice the amount that would have typically triggered a closure, and is approaching three times the amount of violations for a typical nesting seasons. And there’s still more than a month left in this year’s season.

Throop noted that part of the agreement between Fish and Wildlife, VAFB, Lompoc and the California Coastal Commission was that the base would only close the beach if the number of violations became “egregious.”

“In order to keep our beach open, I’m imploring all beachgoers to be respectful of the restricted areas,” Throop said. “We don’t want Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission or anyone else coming down and re-closing the beach.”

Currently, plover violations are monitored in two ways.

There are so-called plover monitors who work for and report to VAFB’s Civil Engineer Squadron, and they look for evidence of violations, such as footprints or fence damage. Then there’s the actual VAFB security forces that look for and report on violations in progress.

People caught violating the posted regulations could face civil penalties up to $25,000, or criminal penalties up to $50,000 and/or a year in prison.

Lompoc Councilman Jim Mosby asked Throop to look into whether he could obtain information showing how many of this year’s violations were committed by people from outside of Lompoc’s 93436 ZIP code.

“In one day out there, I stopped four people from crossing over [the restricted boundaries] that were out-of-towners who had no idea,” Mosby said. “I think it’s important to note the difference there.”

Throop said he’d look into it but acknowledged that such information could be hard to determine since a portion of the violations are reported using only evidence and no contact with the actual offender.

Mayor Jenelle Osborne encouraged Lompoc community members to look into becoming a volunteer docent. Doing so would show that the community is working to improve the beach, she said, and could potentially “help change the tide” of the rising violation totals.

“The more we can have our own community out there educating our visitors about the concerns, [the more likely we’ll] be able to potentially keep our beach open,” she said.

While Throop said it was unlikely that the beach would be closed this year, he said this nesting season could heavily impact the regulations imposed in future years.

“Fish and Wildlife will look at how we're progressing and if we get past this season, they’re gonna look at maybe another season and see, ‘OK, maybe this wasn’t the best test,’ because we’re far, far above what has happened in the past,” he said. “I’d just like to implore everybody to please follow the rules and stay out of the restricted areas.”

In addition to getting Surf Beach opened year-round, Lompoc city officials and residents also started a push last year to open the beach up for fishing within the Vandenberg Marine Preserve — a 33-mile section of coastline — and to have the nearby Ocean Park opened for nonmotorized forms of water recreation. Fishing has not been allowed at Surf Beach since 2007, and recreation hasn’t been permitted in the water at Ocean Park for several decades.

Throop said Friday that he had been informed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that it would not consider any changes to the Vandenberg Marine Preserve until 2022 at the soonest.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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