The Battle Over a North Carolina Beach Continues
On Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a revolutionary management plan is finally putting embattled sea turtles and birds on near-equal footing with ORV drivers. But powerful interests are working hard to undo it.
One of the negotiators was Golder. "They stacked the committee with ORV interests," he reports. "People were screaming and yelling obscenities at us. The threats got bad enough that we asked to be seated so we didn't have our backs to the audience. People were picketing along the roads and standing at the entrances with all these hideous signs about how awful Audubon was. The ORV folks' position was not to give in on anything that reduced vehicle access."
Another negotiator, who requested anonymity, told me that his participation was "the worst thing he ever did," that the process was "extremely contentious," and that "the motorized faction was ugly, outrageous, and in your face." He's had to give up his passion, surf fishing, because he believes his life would be in danger if he set foot on the beach.
Negotiators who defended wildlife had nails thrown in their driveways, were refused service at restaurants, and were warned to look under their cars before starting them. Directions to their houses were posted on the Internet. Their photos and names were printed on "wanted" posters worn on T-shirts and hung in public places, including at least one post office (though without authorization). A typical poster read: "Wanted for the economic ruin of Hatteras Island. The man is one of the leaders of the beach ban. Consider him dangerous to your livelihoods and recreation."
On March 30, 2009, after 14 months, 11 committee meetings, and scores of subcommittee meetings and workshops, facilitators of negotiated rulemaking gave up. This was just as well because the Park Service was then able to depend more on advice of wildlife scientists for the final plan. It's hard to figure why, before the implosion of negotiated rulemaking, the agency felt constrained to ignore the advice of those scientists (many of whom it employs), seeking instead the advice of ORV operators who, for example, believe and publicly state that piping plovers are invasive exotics.
The seashore's enabling legislation requires that it be managed primarily as "primitive wilderness." But seashore leadership seems never to have grasped a central fact about wilderness--that it's for everyone but not everyone all at once. Otherwise, it dries up and blows away like an African waterhole rendered by elephants to dust.
Primitive wilderness was hardly what I encountered this past May in the vast areas still open to ORVs. Our first stop was South Beach, especially important to birds because of the rich food sources and excellent nesting habitat. Audubon had urged the Park Service to restrict parking to a back road and require visitors to walk the several hundred feet to the beach. Instead, the final plan allows motorists to drive and park on the intertidal zone. Along two miles of beach we counted two ruddy turnstones, a brown pelican, several dozen laughing gulls, and 348 ORVs, many parked so close together that doors could barely open.
Under the final plan, 28 of the seashore's 67 miles are designated for year-round vehicle use, while 26 miles are set aside for pedestrians and wildlife. Except during peak tourism season, ORVs have access to the remaining 13 miles. While small sections may be temporarily closed to allow birds and sea turtles to nest, motorized access will be enhanced by new ramps.
Compared to other national seashores this is extremely generous to off-road motorists. For example, the Cape Cod National Seashore occasionally permits ORVs on 8.5 of the 25 beach miles it manages for ORVs. But because of bird breeding and ocean conditions, it more frequently restricts them to much less and sometimes none. On Florida's Canaveral National Seashore, beach driving is forbidden.
Also under the final plan, ORV operators must, for the first time, buy permits--$50 for a week or $120 for a year. To hear it from the local access crowd this is extortion, but it's the norm at other seashores. The money will help fund enforcement and implementation.
Despite the vehicle invasion at South Beach and elsewhere, I saw wilderness on beaches open only to pedestrians and of course on the Atlantic, where kite surfers were going airborne over waves. Two hundred yards out big rollers from a storm far to the south reared up into breakers, white manes trailing in the wind. Churning sand painted near-shore waters multiple shades of yellow, green, turquoise, and blue; a fog of spindrift, silver in the noonday sun, hung up and down the beach for miles. It wasn't hard to see why Americans love the seashore or why the Park Service has had such a hard time keeping them from loving it to death.
The local mindset was written on vehicles registered in North Carolina, all with fishing-rod racks. The latest bumper sticker is a rendering of a fist clutching a tern with middle finger raised over the caption "Hey, Audubon, Identify This Bird." Larger renditions of this classy finger salutation were plastered on businesses and residences and, incredibly, a few feet from a school.
Virtually all the nastiness issues from fishermen who fish from ORVs and some Outer Banks residents. But most vehicles I saw on South Beach had Virginia plates. Few of the Virginians were fishing. Instead they were sunbathing, picnicking, tossing balls and Frisbees, digging in the sand, swimming, surfboarding, and kite surfing. This weekend was a high point in their year. Any advocate of the human race would warm quickly to them. Despite the binoculars hanging from our necks, they smiled and waved at us. The revelers weren't driving on the beach; they were just parked on it. They'd have been just as happy or happier if they'd been required to park on the road behind the dunes.