NC Outer Banks Beach Access: Piping Plovers versus Off-Road Vehicles?

If you have ever visited the Outer Banks, you probably know about the world-renowned fishing available, thanks to the close proximity of the Gulf Stream. You may not know there is a long tradition of driving on the beach, reaching back to times when the beach was the road. Even in more recent times, to fish famous spots such as The Point you need a four wheel drive vehicle to access the beach.

This summer, businesses and fishing alike are suffering thanks to a consent decree accepted by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle April 30, 2008. The history is awfully complicated, and I've read reports from various sources for years trying to make sense of what is going on.

Basically, the National Park Service was supposed to come up with a plan for off-road vehicle (ORV) access at Cape Hatteras National Seashore a long time ago. A plan submitted in 1978 was apparently "lost". In recent years, tons of money has been spent for studies, public hearings, committees, and so on and so forth in typical government fashion to come up with an "interim" plan. Residents and devoted tourists wrote letters to their representatives, donated money to access support groups such as the Outer Banks Preservation Society and the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, and waited with bated breath to see if birds would essentially kick recreational visitors off the Cape Hatteras National Park Recreational Seashore.

Oh yeah, I forgot to introduce the birds. Especially the Piping Plover. You can learn a little about this endangered bird from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Only a handful of Piping Plover show up in in the park in any given nesting season. According to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Interim Protected Species Strategy/EA Finding of No Significant Impact, "In recent years (2003-2005) an average of 2.6 plover pairs have bred at the Seashore, with an average of 2 nests and 2.3 chicks fledged each year" (July 2007, page 13).

"There are 21 documented ORV related plover deaths in the entire United States. Twenty of these were committed by federal vehicles. In the 47 years prior to the consent decree, not one single plover death can be attributed to an ORV user in this park. One hundred percent of plover mortality at CHNSRA has been a result of either storms or predation," writes Jeffrey "Wheat" Golding, long-time Outer Banks visitor and now resident, and access supporter, in The case for passing legislation that returns management of the seashore to the Park Service.

Many other birds are referenced in the consent decree, but none of them are threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Mike Berry, who taught public health, environmental science, and business and environment courses at the University of North Carolina for over 20 years and worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for 28 years, takes A critical look at designating critical habitat for wintering piping plovers in much more detail than I have room to explore here.

According to Berry, "In the current background materials provided by FWS, there is no analysis or discussion of piping plover population changes since the bird was first listed as endangered in the 1980s. This is a blatant violation of the requirement that critical habitat designations be based on the "best scientific information available."

I like birds. I've considered myself a "conservationist" most of my life. I admit I'm biased, having enjoyed four-wheel drive access to the shore for fishing most of my life. I've tried my best to keep an open mind over recent years as I've followed the battle between park recreational users and environmentalists. But lately, the situation seems riddled with blatant abuse by the opposers of ORV access.

A recent lawsuit filed jointly by the National Audubon Society and the Defenders of Wildlife against the National Park Service resulted in the "settlement" that effectively closed Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, Hatteras Island spit, and the North and South Points of Ocracoke, five popular fishing areas.

While some will point out that this "settlement" was agreed to by all parties, the Judge made it clear to the defendants that without the consent decree, the beaches would be completely closed.

Most recreational fishermen and women are by nature conservationists. We understand and value the natural resources of the Outer Banks. While many felt the interim plan approved in July 2007 was too restrictive of ORV access, at least the process was acceptable.

Two big factors are lacking in the consent decree: public input and scientific information.

Also important to note is that the plaintiffs are part of the negotiated rule-making committee responsible for coming up with a Long Range Plan for managing access. The lawsuit is an insult to the time and money that has gone in to the appropriate public process. It's hard to see this issue as really about protecting the birds. It seems entirely about prohibiting access--and not just ORV access. The affected areas are closed to everyone--including pedestrians--and boundaries extend into the water.

What Can We Do?

North Carolina U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones introduced legislation into the Senate and the House of Representatives that would set aside the consent decree and require that the Park Service operate the seashore under the Interim Management Strategy.

The Cape Hatteras Anglers Club website provides detailed instructions and a sample letter that you can use to contact your representatvies and encourage them to support HR. 6233 and S. 3113.

Calling one another "piping plover" when someone is being unreasonable has become an unfortunate joke in my household. We will continue to vacation on the Outer Banks and support local businesses. Many visitors are attempting to reschedule vacations for times of the year least likely to be effected by closures. You can check the CHNP website prior to your visit for the latest beach closure information.

Published 7/13/2008

For updates, keep an eye on Island Free Press.

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url:

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Comments 13 comments

DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

You have done a fair analysis of the situation, which I did not see before reading your hub. Fantastic job, I see your reporting roots emerging again!

Stephanie C Price profile image

Stephanie C Price 8 years ago from Williamston, NC

Have you seen the sticker on my truck? It says: I love Piping Plovers, extra crispy with potato salad and sweet tea.

dineane profile image

dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina Author

Haven't noticed your sticker, Stephaine, but I was tempted to advertise t-shirts with similar slogans in the hub :-) I really don't have a problem with reasonable attempts to protect the birds. I just think the measures utilized by NPS prior to this lawsuit were more than sufficient for the Outer Banks.

obxdeborah 8 years ago

Riding on the beach on the NC coast is what gives the poor guy a piece of the ocean front property. I remember when I bought my first 4-wheel drive. It is a feeling that I am sure Christopher Columbus had when he first sailed the seas. I can't help but wonder if this is just another plight for the rich to over come the poor and control the beauty that God gave all of us.

Stephanie C Price profile image

Stephanie C Price 8 years ago from Williamston, NC

I agree with you Deb and Dineane. I'm all for saving the planet because we have to live here and all. But there has to be some kind of middle ground. I believe it is a slap in the face to all the people in NC and other places to know that they can't come experience the beauty of our state unless they own a beach mansion. It ain't right!!! And I'm mad about it.

dineane profile image

dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina Author

something else you can DO! From a post on the forums at The legislation to restore access at Cape Hatteras will be up for a hearing in the National Parks Subcommittee on Wed. -- PROGRESSn We have a petition we would like to deliver to the committee on that date. Please take a moment to sign it. Our goal is 10,000 signatures. We have 6,445 as of this date

Here's the link:

Jim Barbee 6 years ago

If the mission of the Park Service is to preserve the wildlife, including this bird, that lives in the park, wouldn't they be negligent in their duties if they didn't? Access is not being denied to recreationists, only the means by which they access it. If an activity threatens a species that the Park Service is required to protect, how could we allow them not to take the necessary steps to do so?

dineane profile image

dineane 6 years ago from North Carolina Author

the thing is, Jim, there's just little evidence that restricting ORV access helps preserve the bird on the Outer Banks. And yes, access is being denied - not just ORV access. You can't "walk" beyond the signs, either. It's been a while since I did my research for this article, so whether or not the mission of the Park Service is to "preserve the wildlife", I can't say off the top of my head. I do remember, however, that the area in question was designated as a "recreational" park. For the latest info, check out Preserve Beach Access on facebook. Maybe I'll get around to a follow up article soon.

outdoorsguy profile image

outdoorsguy 6 years ago from Tenn

Im honestly getting tired of this kind of thing. Public land equal public access. Im all for a return to conservation and open access parks as opposed to the Environut job agendas of closing access to the outdoors to every group they dont like or approve of.

thanks for the hub

concernedtourist 6 years ago

Maybe the plovers have been so successful breeding this year because the National Park Service has been doing way more than restricting beaches to ORVs and pedestrians. Locals on Hatteras Island have pictures of PARK RANGERS shooting foxes and other wildlife (on a protected national seashore) to ensure the safety of these birds. Although, yes, it is very important to help animals in need, i.e. the plovers, but SHOOTING and killing all other wildlife in its "poor plover habitat" isn't the lesser of two evils. The Audubon and the NPS should be punished for its unlawful treatment of all other wildlife, excluding the Plover.

dineane profile image

dineane 6 years ago from North Carolina Author

hmmm....and I guess no plovers in Corolla. (thanks to my mom for this link)

Stephanie P 5 years ago

As someone who has enjoyed the Outer Banks for many years, I can see both sides of this controversy. Those who enjoy driving on the beaches,and I include myself, are sometimes unmindful of the damage that it can do to the environment by disturbing the nesting grounds of birds and sea turtles.

However, the issue of beach driving is more extensive than preserving the piping plover. I've seen the beaches from Buxton to Hatteras littered with fishing line, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and other trash left by fishermen and tourists who drive on the beach. While I don't want to see these beaches closed for recreational use, I think that limiting driving on the beaches would be a good thing for the environment as well as to preserve the beautiful beaches for future generations. When I go to the beach and see people from the same pickup truck that has one of those cute bumpers stickers about keeping the beaches open throw cigarette butts out the window or leave fishing line on the beach, it makes me believe that limiting beach driving is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, it's impossible to separate these kinds of people from the responsible beach users.

The Outer Banks has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I, for one, hope that they are clean and beautiful when my great grandchildren want to enjoy them -- even if they have to walk to the beach.

dineane profile image

dineane 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

I'm long over due for an update to this article, but for a quick glimpse of the ridiculous that has emerged, check out these photos on facebook:

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