Our report last week on plans for reopening Surf Beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base included a few survey questions, essentially asking readers to decide how they like their beaches.
Our guess is the majority answers would be — open and accessible to the general public.
Surf Beach is Lompoc’s closest publicly accessible shoreline, and each year officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base are compelled to protect the Western snowy plover, a small shorebird species on the federal threatened-species list. Those restrictions limit public access to just 1.25 miles of shoreline and have in recent years led to complete shutdowns of the popular beach.
Here’s the thing about Americans and their beaches, especially during the summer months — beachgoers are not happy, and haven’t been for the two decades or so the Air Force has been strictly enforcing plover nesting area restrictions. In fact, lots of local folks denied a visit to Surf Beach have been downright cranky about it.
Maybe that angst and frustration is approaching a potential sunset.
Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne and other city leaders have begun a conversation that could lead to lifting the beach restrictions and closures. Such a conversation could lead to the construction of a new boardwalk, the reopening of the estuary at Ocean Park for various activities, and the return of recreational fishing at the beach.
The Lompoc City Council last spring directed City Manager Jim Throop to draft a letter to the California Coastal Commission expressing the community’s desire to have more access and fishing at Surf Beach. It’s part of a five-year beach management plan.
A petition to change the management plan collected more than 3,000 signatures, then handed them to the Coastal Commission. A subsequent tour of the affected area triggered more talks, which concluded with the suggestion to recategorize Surf Beach from a “preserve” a “conservation area.” That would at least open the beach to fishing.
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The ball was now rolling, and officials from VAFB suggested the development of a boardwalk from county-managed Ocean Park to Surf Beach, which is VAFB’s responsibility.
The beauty of a boardwalk is that it could be constructed above the plover habitat areas, thus allowing people to walk between the two locations without disturbing the birds and their nests. The state of Florida has been using such boardwalks for decades, preserving sensitive habitat while allowing folks to enjoy nature.
The Air Force seems to have softened its approach to the beach restrictions and subsequent closures. VAFB officials have decided to count plover nesting-season violations at Surf Beach and Ocean Park separately, instead of as one combined count. That single adjustment is credited as having helped keep the beach and park open throughout this year’s nesting season.
The Western snowy plover is a truly beautiful creature, but incredibly vulnerable to animal predation and humans stomping around on top of nests. They have been part of the beach ecosystem far longer than humans enjoying a day at the beach.
Air Force officials have expressed a desire to discontinue the yearly plover violation counts entirely, but that won’t happen until the birds are either fully protected, or folks who use the beach can keep themselves from disturbing the plovers during nesting season.
The new beach paradigm will be presented to the Coastal Commission in December, and we encourage commission members to seriously consider allowing local government and VAFB plans to move forward.
This will not be an easy process. The region’s population is growing, and the more people living equates to more trips to the beach. But the future looks bright.