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Conservation Groups Question Cape Hatteras National Seashore's Preferred ORV Management Plan


Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials have released their final Environmental Impact Statement on off-road vehicle driving. NPS photo.

A proposed plan governing off-road vehicle access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore while also offering wildlife protection has drawn initial opposition from the groups that forced the National Park Service to develop the strategy.

The preferred alternative -- Alternative F, one of six alternatives in the seashore's much-anticipated Final Environmental Impact Statement on off-road travel -- falls short of adequately protecting Cape Hatteras' wildlife, according to representatives for the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.

The plan, intended to guide ORV management on the 67-mile-long seashore for the coming 10-15 years, is the result of a lawsuit the two conservation groups brought against the Park Service in 2007 because there were no formal ORV guidelines in place and threatened species of sea turtles and shorebirds allegedly were endangered by the vehicles.

Tight regulations have governed ORV travel in recent years -- overnight driving was banned and temporary closures at times were enacted during breeding seasons, for example -- while seashore officials worked on an EIS outlining the management plan. Last year was a particularly successful year in terms of both sea turtle and piping plover reproduction, and the conservation groups cited the ORV restrictions when applauding the growing wildlife numbers.

Park Service planners came up short in translating that success to management guidelines in the EIS, the groups maintained.

“Numbers since 2008 demonstrate that under science-based wildlife management, nesting birds and turtles can rebound, tourism can thrive, and wildlife and people can share the beach at Cape Hatteras,” Walker Golder, acting executive director of Audubon North Carolina, said in a prepared statement in response to the seashore's preferred alternative, which was released Monday. “The Park Service’s plan currently falls short of providing adequate science-based, year-round protections for the seashore’s natural resources.”

Reaction to the proposal from ORV groups such as the Outer Banks Preservation Association and the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club was not immediately available.

But the debate over this plan, which is set to be finalized 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, likely is far from over, as the issue has been polarizing. Environmentalists have defended their call for strict controls on beach driving by arguing that protecting wildlife resources should trump recreationists’ demands for convenient ORV access to the beach. Beach-driving surf fishermen have strongly protested the strict rules. They argue that the federal government has greatly exaggerated the threat posed to wildlife by ORV driving on the beach, and that the current rules make it unreasonably difficult to get to traditionally popular fishing areas.

Under Alternative F, new parking areas along Highway 12 would be built, as would new access ramps to the beach. Pedestrians also would see a new trail through the dunes down to the beach. Overall, the alternative would allow for 27.9 miles of year-round designated ORV routes on the seashore, 12.7 miles of seasonal routes, and 26.4 miles of vehicle-free miles.

Under Alternative D, the "environmentally preferred alternative," there would be 27.2 miles of ORV routes open year-round, no miles of seasonal routes, and 40.1 miles closed to vehicles year-round.

At the Southern Environmental Law Center, which handled the lawsuit for Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, representatives questioned the amount of access ORV drivers would have under the preferred alternative.

Reached at her office Tuesday evening, Julie Youngman, a senior attorney at the law center, said Alternative F's provisions failed to meet all of the recommendations made by United States Geological Survey researchers who examined the seashore's sea turtle and shorebird populations. For instance, she said, the preferred alternative does not block ORV access to the cape's spits and points, something the USGS recommended in its "moderate" recommendation and which her clients support.

"That’s just an example of how the current version of the preferred plan, while it does lots of things those (USGS) protocols recommended, it doesn’t do everything," she said.

The 108-page USGS study that contained the recommendations, published this past March, offered three levels of protection seashore officials might consider in drafting the ORV management plan.

• Under Option A, no recreation is permitted in any habitat used in the previous 10 years by the species in question. This eliminates the threat of direct mortality or disturbance due to recreation and greatly reduces indirect impacts, such as attraction of wild predators to the habitat of protected species and alteration of the beach profile by ORV traffic.

• Under Option B, for birds and plants, pedestrian recreation, but not ORV traffic, is permitted within a corridor in historically used habitat. For sea turtles, Option B closes all historically used habitats to night use by ORVs and optionally pedestrians, and closes segments of the habitat to all recreation. Option B reduces the risk of direct mortality and disturbance over current management practices but does not reduce indirect effects of recreation to the same extent as Option A.

• Under Option C, for birds and plants, ORV and pedestrian use is permitted in a corridor in historically used habitat. For sea turtles, night use of the habitat for recreation is permitted only in conjunction with user educational programs, and as in Option B, certain segments of beach remain closed. The risk of mortality, disturbance, and indirect effects of recreation are higher than under Option A or B, but still less than under current management practices.

Ms. Youngman said her clients did not favor shutting down all ORV travel along the national seashore, but believed more restrictions were required than what were proposed in Alternative F.

“If they’re going to ignore their own scientists' recommendations and allow driving there, they’re going to have to be very careful in managing that driving," the lawyer said. "We’re not necessarily saying (points and spits) must be closed, but if they’re going to be open to driving then that driving has to be very carefully managed. That’s one of the things that we’ll be looking very carefully to see.”

Since the Federal Register's listing of the Park Service's final selection is yet to come, Ms. Youngman said it would be premature to speculate whether her clients would want to legally challenge it. However, she said the successes noticed on the seashore this past summer indicate that a reasonable balance can be achieved in managing ORV use on Cape Hatteras.

"2010 was a record-setting year for sea turtles and piping plovers," she said. "The tourist industry had a record-setting year. We see that as a success. ... That shows that wildlife and tourism industry can thrive at the same time."


Kurt you have this article framed perfectly. The issue is about ORV access in the National Park (CHNS). The ORV advocates making all the noise view CHNS as some type of hybrid ORV recreation/fishing byway, not a National Seashore. They make this connection because Cape Hatteras National Seashore had “Recreation Area” added to the Park’s name solely to accommodate waterfowl hunting in the Park.

Parking 100’s cars in a linear mile of beach in the vicinity of nesting and or foraging shore birds is going to have a negative affect on the resource. All kinds of recreational activities can and have occurred on these beaches, like all day tailgate parties complete with pig cookers.

There must be some alternatives that will benefit resources and provide access that allows visitors to get to the scenic high value areas than the Park’s preferred plan.

CHNS problems are like so many others in our nation, contention has polarized the interested parties to the point of vindictiveness, making legitimate compromise difficult.

Perhaps we should just close all of the seashore... dynamite the Oregon Inlet Bridge and discontinue ferry services. Evict all the residents of Hatteras and close it permanently to any human visitation. Prior to closing, remove all buildings, lighthouses, vehicles, boats, etc. that are on the island and let the island return to it's pre-1500 splendor.

Of consideration, we might pursue this same activity on all barrier islands along the East Coast.

Windwalker...the rub is that the beach is being treated like a parking lot because people want to haul so many coolers, grills and basically tailgate like they are in a parking lot waiting for kickoff - its ridiculous - and excessive, not to mention lazy - a true fisherman wouldn't mind a hike on foot with his tackle bag - but what is going on is not fishing - if sunbathers can haul their stuff in a low impact way down to the beach and be fine in designated areas why can't you all leave your trucks in a parking lot as well.

Its not the eco-system you guys want its convenience and to blast your stereos and haul all your stuff - a truck full of stuff. Without a properly balanced eco-system the health of the ocean and catch will be impacted ...but then again this isn't about fishing - its about partying, jamming your tunes, setting up your tents and campsite - hauling out your coolers, grills, drinking and eating and oh yeah - somebody in the gang might actually stick a pole in the ground and casts into the ocean.

Sorry your alleged right to do whatever the hell it is you want to doesn't trump the health of the planet - or the sustainability of our very delicately balanced eco-system. Row after row of cars ruins it for everyone - we go to the beach to enjoy not destroy nature - loose some of the crap you haul - park your truck on the street and walk it in like everybody else or rent a boat.

Seriously what makes you think because your an alleged sportsman you have more rights than the rest of us?

[Edited to remove offensive remarks. Let's be civil out there, OK?]

I would prefer that someone (NPS) acted like the adult rather than a neutral observer, set the two sides in a corner and then did what is best for the Park for now and future generations. Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands won't be destroyed and plenty of visitors will enjoy the Seashore and business people will make plenty of money from the people that come to visit the Park.

Anonymous ... It appears the Park Services has done just. This plan isn't what the environmentalists want, and I know the OBPA and their ilk are apoplectic. It would be real nice if all sides would just stand down and live with this plan for a few years. But I suspect the ORV people will sue, if not attempt, yet again to get Congress to run roughshod over the national park system, the endangered species act, and the rest of America to further their personal agenda. I hope I'm wrong. I'm one visitor who thinks this plan is good enough and it should be left at that.

Paul, since you live in Va. Beach I would assume you have been out to the point? If you have then you also know it is not likely anyone will be walking or hiking out there on foot. And not due to laziness. I'm not a fisherman, a sportsman, a tailgater or a haul everything you own to the beach type of person. I enjoy being at the point, swimming, shelling, bird watching and walking the shoreline. There are plenty of folks in the middle that simply want to be able to enjoy and have access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I am very familiar with sustainability and educating people on the protection of our wild places while out there enjoying them. Love the turtles, love the birds, but I also believe in access. It all boils down to good management and education. Mud slinging and polarization will take us nowhere fast.

The acronym for the park is CAHA.

There seems to be a reluctance in the biological opinion to acknowledge that human interaction has historically played a minimal role in the lack of success in plovers and turtles at CAHA. Nesting and chick failure is, by a wide margin, due to weather events and predation. Not even debatable from an objective scientific standpoint.

Recent "successes" in bird fledge rates at CAHA can be linked to low number of spring and summer storms and the elimination by trapping and killing close to 1000 mammalian predators in the past 3-4 years.

Reported loggerhead turtle nesting success at CAHA in 2010 in is line with decade-high nesting in SC, GA and FL.

Audubon & DOW know this but fail to let the public know as it is not in their interest.

Large area closures of access to a National Seashore for minimal and largely theoretical benefit during nesting is not defensible. I agree there are real benefit of keeping ORVs out of areas to protect hatchlings and most reasonable ORV users have no objection to this strategy.

I do understand that the biological opinion is resource centric, however, the management plan for CAHA must be balanced for both resource protection and optimizing and retaining traditional recreational opportunities. Alt F fail to do this.

And the term "year-round" for ORV areas should be purged as it is spurious. Resource closures in the spring and summer will close much of these "year-round" areas.

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