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.
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: http://hubpages.com/_ndwcopyright/hub/NC-Outer-Banks-Beach-Access-Piping-Plovers-Off-Road-Vehicles
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