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News & Observer: Beach driving restrictions at Cape Hatteras open for debate

Congress mandated that National Park Service consider revising beach driving restrictions

Article originally appeared in the News & Observer.

By Rose Rimler

Another chapter has opened in the ongoing story of beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Following federal orders written into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, the National Park Service is considering increasing beach access to drivers at the park, a move that delights some and disappoints others.

Several of the roughly 30 people who attended a public hearing in Raleigh on Thursday night said the rules implemented in 2012 are too restrictive. The park service is considering opening the beach earlier in the morning, extending some of the seasonal off-road vehicle routes, changing the location of vehicle-free areas and offering more types of driving permits.

Lance Brown, who surf fishes when he visits the park with his family every year, drove to Raleigh from Charlotte on Thursday night to comment on the proposal in person.

To surf fish successfully, Brown said, you have to be mobile, because the shape and depth of the shoreline changes seasonally.

“If you only have five of 50 miles to fish on, there’s no reason to go,” he said.

In 2007, The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society argued successfully in court that the National Park Service hadn’t adopted an off-road vehicle management plan for Cape Hatteras as ordered for all public lands by President Richard Nixon in 1972. The park service announced its “Final Rule” for off-road vehicles in 2012, which included bans on nighttime driving and requirements for off-road permits.

“The majority of the seashore is open to driving still under this plan,” said Walker Golder, the deputy state director for the Audubon Society. “It's a reasonable, responsible, and balanced plan, and we feel like it should be given a chance to work.”

Of the 64 miles of shoreline, nearly eight miles were temporarily closed to protect wildlife and 32 miles were open to pedestrians only, as of Aug. 5.

The threat cars pose to birds and sea turtles goes beyond running them over, Golder said. Nesting birds may abandon their eggs when cars are in the area, and chicks and baby turtles can get caught in or blocked by tire ruts.

Bob Eakes, who has owned a tackle shop in Buxton for 40 years, is skeptical of the park service’s claim that limiting beach driving is truly helping wildlife. He cited the piping plover, a bird listed as threatened on the Atlantic Coast by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This year they managed to fledge two chicks,” Eakes said. “That’s it.”

Eakes says the restrictions were a “major setback” to his business.

“Today in 2015, my tackle shop is not back in sales to what it was in 2008,” he said, adding that another business he owned went bankrupt during that time.

So far this season at Cape Hatteras, there have been 10 American oyster fledglings, 18 active waterbird colonies, and no Wilson’s plover fledglings, the park service reports.

There were a record 269 sea turtle nests, but it’s unclear what is causing the success.

In addition to the role driving restrictions may play, weather, predation, and other factors are tied to wildlife success on the shore, said Dave Hallac, superintendent of the Outer Banks for the National Park Service.

Tickets to ride

Permits to drive on the beach cost $120 a year or $50 a week. Between Oct. 1, 2014, and Aug. 3, 2015, the park service sold more than 26,000 permits, collecting almost $2 million.

That money goes to the construction of new ramps and parking lots, to help pay law enforcement officers and other beach staff, and to support monitoring of the at-risk species, Hallac said.

Common complaints against the existing rules are that vehicle-free areas are too far from parking lots, and that anglers are sometimes denied access to their favorite spots.

Closures around Cape Point, for example, have inspired rancor. The area is a favorite for fishing as well as relaxing and nature watching, said Hallac. But it is a great nesting habitat, and ephemeral ponds also make it an important area for wildlife, he said.

Hallac said access to Cape Point and other areas may improve under revised wildlife buffers the park service released earlier this year. In the same legislation that required the park service to reconsider driving restrictions, Congress also directed the service to make areas blocked off for wildlife as small as possible.

Some of those changes may not make a difference, Golder said, but others – for example a narrowed buffer for American oystercatchers – could be devastating.

At the heart of the controversy is a philosophical debate about the mission of a national park.

“The vast majority of people who visit that seashore go there not to drive on the beach but go there to walk on the beach, to see the historic sites, and to enjoy the wildlife,” said Derb Carter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And the interest of those people who want to be able to drive anywhere they want to on the beach should not be the predominant objective of managing a national seashore that belongs to everyone.”

Eakes sees it differently. Cape Hatteras wasn’t designated a national seashore for birds, he said. “It was put here to take care of people and give them a chance to come to the beach. They took that away from the American public.”

In fact, the legislation that designated Cape Hatteras as a national seashore in 1937 says that except for certain portions deemed “especially adaptable for recreational uses,” the area “shall be permanently reserved as a primitive wilderness and no development of the project or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions now prevailing in this area.”

Brown, the surf fisherman from Charlotte, said there is a “happy medium” to be reached between people and wildlife, and between those who label themselves environmentalists and those who do not.

“Typically fishermen are conservationists,” he said.

The park service is accepting comments on the proposed changes online through Aug. 21.

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