A New Rule Balances Wildlife and Off-Road-Vehicle Use on a North Carolina Beach

A New Rule Balances Wildlife and Off-Road-Vehicle Use on a North Carolina Beach

Congressional legislation and a pending civil suit threaten the future of a new rule that protects wildlife and allows vehicles on Cape Hatteras National Seashore. 

By Anna Sanders
Published: 06/12/2012

Five years ago tire tracks carved by recreational off-road vehicles traced a path of destruction over dead birds and demolished eggs. Today least tern chicks, nesting loggerhead sea turtles, and piping plovers are flourishing at North Carolina's Cape Hatteras National Seashore. After a legal battle waged by Audubon North Carolina and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Park Service issued a new rule put into effect this past February that allows ORV access in certain areas within the seashore while also protecting sea turtles and birds. Yet despite this initial compromise, pending congressional legislation and civil litigation could negate the park service's ruling, threatening bird species, other wildlife, and plants on the shore.

"Historically, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been very important for birds that depend on the barrier islands for nesting, migratory stopovers, and wintering areas," explains Walker Golder, Audubon North Carolina's deputy director.

How to manage Cape Hatteras has been a conservation issue for decades. In 1972 President Richard Nixon issued an executive order requiring the Interior Department and the National Park Service to develop rules regulating ORV use on public lands for the purpose of protecting public safety, minimizing conflicts among land users, and protecting natural resources. President Jimmy Carter clarified the order five years later, saying federal agencies must close areas to ORV use whenever such use was adversely affecting natural resources.

In spite of the two executive orders, the National Park Service never finalized an ORV management plan for Cape Hatteras, relying instead on a draft interim plan developed in 1978.

But from what the Park Service has experienced in recent years, it is possible the draft was never finalized because of controversy and political pressure,explains Mike Murray, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. "ORV management at the seashore is a longstanding, emotionally charged, and highly polarized issue," he says. "There was resistance to portions of the 1978 draft plan, such as a proposed ORV permit requirement, just as there's resistance to the new plan and regulation. I can fully understand why it has been so difficult for the Park Service to complete an ORV management plan and special regulation at the seashore."

As the years passed, growing numbers of people drove on the fragile shores. And more ORVs meant more people in remote areas. Protection for birds decreased, as did breeding productivity, while disturbance increased. The seashore's bird populations began to decline. In 1992, 14 years after the NPS began managing the area based on the draft interim plan, only 12 piping plover breeding pairs made use of the shore. By 2003 that number dropped to two. Only one chick fledged that year (none fledged in 2002 and 2004). From 1995 to 2004 the number of common tern nests on the shore decreased 76 percent, from 739 to 180. By 2007 the number of terns and skimmers nesting on the seashore's beaches had reached historic lows. Indeed, black skimmers and gull-billed terns were absent as a nesting species that year.

"When we began to see problems, we began to work with the seashore to raise awareness of the issues and the need to protect birds on the beach," Golder says.

Because of this effort and to address a continuing decline in nesting bird populations, in 2006 the Park Service, after a yearlong feasibility assessment, issued an Interim Protected Species Management Strategy to provide resource protection guidance until a long-term ORV management plan and regulation could be developed.

"We commented repeatedly that the Interim Protected Species Management Strategy was inadequate," says Golder. "They did focus on piping plovers in 2007 but ignored other birds, sea turtles, science, and the recommendations of the U.S. Geological Survey."

"Unfortunately, the Interim Strategy did not even incorporate the measures that the government's own scientists identified as necessary to protect wildlife at the seashore," says Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The natural resources of Cape Hatteras were not being protected for future generations." Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, adds, "It was not a legally valid ORV management plan by any means."

On October 18, 2007, Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued the National Park Service, arguing that its governance of ORVs was inadequate. The Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, a pro-ORV lobbying group, and Dare and Hyde counties, where the seashore is located, intervened in the suit. After several months the parties agreed to implement another temporary but stricter science-based plan regulating ORV use on Cape Hatteras until the National Park Service finalized a formal ORV management regulation. Under these stricter protections, rare wildlife began to rebound, with several species breeding in record-setting numbers.  In 2010, for instance, the seashore had 15 fledged piping plover chicks, 26 fledged American oystercatcher chicks, and 153 sea turtle nests. The court agreement also set a deadline for the final rule to be adopted.

After several years of study, research, and public participation, the National Park Service put its final regulation into effect this past February. The rule allows for year-round ORV beach access on 28 of the shore's 67 miles while simultaneously protecting birds and other wildlife. 

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Anna Sanders

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Comments

I guess you have not been out

I guess you have not been out of your house much..and yes there are few bugs on the beach,, but you have to get there..I have trouble walking so its hard..this area was not planned for walkers.. we could always get to the beach by driving..there is no parking at the beach fronts..show me??? I not saying there should not be some control, but whats is in place is to much.. How about more working together, then the special interest groups leaving the table...lets get together and make our beach, have more access For everyone............

Beach access

Pat I get out of the house a lot.
Here are a list of nice beaches you can walk on without ruts unless S. 2372 is passed.
1. Beach in front of Hallover (Canadian Hole)
2 Beach N of ramp 43 the old loran road all the way to the Hallover with a 2 huge parking lots and easy access at the old lighthouse site.
3. The bath house in Frisco, showers and bathroom easy wooden boardwalk to beach.
4. Sandy Bay parking lot on the soundside just outside Hatteras, easy walk across street to a boardwalk

That is not counting the 1000's of visitors that everyday walk out of their rental cottage over the subdivision boardwalk to the beach, some subdivision are less restrictive than others as far as parking access, none of them will say a word if you are walking there.

There are lots of places to park on the side of highway 12 and easy, no more than a big city mall walk  for you to get to the beach if you ask around.

That would be dune to the

That would be dune to the tideline (darn iPhone)

Hatteras ecomony in trash can

To say that the hatteras island economy is doing fine is an outright lie.... I started going to hatterAs island shortly after returning from southeast Asia , about 1966. My family and bought land and built a house which we rent to visitors on a weekly basis. In the last five years, our house usage has gone down 70% , With this year so far looking to be the worse ever. The total lack of real time data and constant lies from the Eco-nazi groups is a true disgrace. The title of the park is "The Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Recreational Area". It does not say Wildlife Refruge". recreation for ALL the people......

Hatteras ecomony in trash can

To say that the hatteras island economy is doing fine is an outright lie.... I started going to hatterAs island shortly after returning from southeast Asia , about 1966. My family and bought land and built a house which we rent to visitors on a weekly basis. In the last five years, our house usage has gone down 70% , With this year so far looking to be the worse ever. The total lack of real time data and constant lies from the Eco-nazi groups is a true disgrace. The title of the park is "The Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Recreational Area". It does not say Wildlife Refruge". recreation for ALL the people......

the beach closures...

It's disappointing how sarcastic and nasty many comments are. Unfortunately, the Audubon article opens with hyperbole, which sets the tone. I've been vacationing in Hatteras for almost 20 years, but I've never seen a destructive path of eggs smashed under ORV tires, nor a beautiful blooming nature resurgance. Hatteras is always beautiful, full of wildlife, and full of people who love to be outdoors.

It appears the National Park Service did allow public comment on the new ORV policy, but as HatterasKeith points out, there appears to be no scientific explanation for the recent decline of plovers, and especially no particular link to ORVs. (What I've read is that plovers were mostly wiped out by hunters at the turn of the previous century, and that the overall population has increased since '91, long before this latest mess...).

It's hard to understand why half the shoreline is now effectively closed to any access. Particularly when, driving down the main highway, you're often just yards away from the protected bird nesting sites, since the islands are so narrow. I'm having a hard time understanding what plants are being saved also. If you see pre-Depression pictures of the islands, you'll realize that the long narrow sections were just sand spits. A WPA project created dunes, and everyone today knows to stay out of them to preserve some wave protection. The Pea Island Wildlife sanctuary, which has a lot of vegetation, is already protected.

Another odd thing is that no one mentions the cats. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them, on the islands. The idea that leashing a few pet dogs will solve the animal problem seems questionable. A local group works to neuter feral cats on the islands, which seems a better approach.

Writing this I've been tempted to dive into the hyperbole, anger, and nastiness myself.But we need to figure out a way forward. Audubon could do better by being more transparent about their funding and causes, by getting better informed about the islands as well as the birds, and by being more inclusive in their approach.

You may not like ORVs. You may not even like to see a single person on a beach where you bird watch. But if Audubon has any interest in the actual birds themselves, it would pay to do a little more listening and research.

all based on the best

all based on the best available science...

That's the problem if you had

That's the problem if you had to consult a book to ID the difference between AMOY and a laughing gull you probably don't know much about birds and your ID becomes even more questionable and laughable. Get a photo of the Oyster Catchers in the parking lot a lot of people would like to see that.

i saw two laughing......

So just to check myself I looked up a photo of laughing gulls.....nope, not them. If you were there you must have been one of the people circling the ABC store on a Sunday to see if they were open.

".....I saw two oyster

".....I saw two oyster catchers mating in the ABC store parking lot in Buxton a week ago."

Nope I was there they were laughing gulls, big difference.

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