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At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Birds, Turtles, And Humans Have Created An Air of Controversy

Cape Hatteras is a thin, fragile landscape often at the mercy of the weather. It's a tenuous setting for both humans and wildlife, more so when the two are crowded together. The piping plover, a threatened species, has drawn the ire of more than a few locals who would like to see it gone. Aerial of Cape Hatteras via NASA, bottom photo of bumper sticker by Bob Mishak.

Editor's note: Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one of the jewels not only of the Atlantic Seaboard, but also of the National Park System. Its wide, sparkling beaches are popular with visitors of all kinds -- humans, birds, and reptiles included -- and that creates problems at times when some of the wildlife are protected by the Endangered Species Act. In a two-part series, the Traveler looks at the differing viewpoints, the resulting friction, and the tough spot the National Park Service has found itself in in trying to manage the seashore for both humans and wildlife. To help gain an understanding of how the conflict arose, in part one we lay out the landscape, both geologically and as wildlife habitat.

Barrier islands are tricky things -- if you want to build something and have it stay intact, that is -- as they're constantly in motion. Unlike the Rocky Mountains and the colorful Southwest -- landscapes where you can tick off geologic epochs, from the Paleocene through the Miocene and Pliocene to the Holocene, while staring at a 1,000-foot-tall butte or cliff -- barrier islands are ground-up, endlessly tumbled, spit out geologic remains.    

In the case of capes Hatteras and Lookout in North Carolina, the sands are eroded bits of the Appalachian Mountains constantly being shipped downstream by rivers and deposited in the Atlantic, where surging longshore currents constantly rearrange them.  Hurricanes accentuate these effects, shuttling veritable boatloads of sand downstream, shoving around entire barrier islands such as those that comprise Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores, and even tearing islands in half.

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The beauty of the beaches at Cape Hatteras make it a popular destination. NPS photo.

As Robert Lillie described this action in his book, Parks and Plates, The Geology of our National Parks, Monuments, and Seashores, “National seashores are places where we can see geologic changes in our own lifetimes -- and observe, as Rachel Carson so vividly revealed -- ‘Earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.’”    

Though moveable, barrier islands abound with life. Live oaks twisted and stunted by salt spray and winds into gigantic bonsais serve as perches for white ibis and other birds. Long-needled -- and towering -- loblolly pine, blackgums, and even black cherry trees also can be found in the patches of maritime forests. Dunes that endure pounding surf, salt spray, and gusting wind sprout sea oats and saltmeadow cordgrass that are among the plants that try to hold the sand in place. Gulls, terns, egrets, herons, crabs, and sea turtles, as well as raccoons and even feral cats, are among the wildlife found here.    

And, of course, there are people, both weekenders and life-timers.    

This incredible landscape is the backdrop to a story that has divided neighbors, angered businesses against the National Park Service and environmental groups, and pitted beach-goers against birds and other species losing habitat to conflicts between the very nature of barrier islands and human development. It’s one that also has drawn into question the very purpose of the national seashores and the mission of the National Park Service.

Human Efforts To Tame Nature

While highly desirable as places to live and enjoy the outdoors, the barrier islands offer something of a false promise for those who want to send down their own roots because of the islands' lack of long-term stability. More than a few beach-front houses have been toppled by hurricanes and the ever-constant erosion caused by the Atlantic.

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Historical photos show vehicles weren't always a mainstay on Cape Hatteras beaches. NPS photo.

At Cape Hatteras, engineers answering cries for more developed areas long have tried to outmaneuver shifting sands with "hundreds of miles of sand fences," native grasses, and other vegetation. 

Back in the 1950s -- nearly two decades after the idea of a Cape Hatteras National Seashore was OKed by North Carolinians and Interior Department officials and just about the time it was to be officially dedicated -- North Carolina officials strongly pushed efforts to pave a road on Ocracoke Island as well as one on Hatteras Island. Park Service officials, who up until then had wanted tight restrictions on "operating motor vehicles off roadways or on beaches except for specific purposes within well-defined areas," relented a bit in 1956 and came up with $100,000 for "long-range efforts to rebuild and stabilize the national seashore's protective dunes."

Those efforts made it possible for Highway 12, a paved two-lane highway that today shuttles you the length of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. But they also required constant vigilance by road crews to hold the islands in place and the Atlantic Ocean at bay. 

But what engineers, managers, and politicians seemed to overlook, underestimate, or ignore was the relentless, unflinching, powerful Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes in 1958 and 1962 demonstrated that fact of nautical life, shredding highways and ripping out sand fences as if they were architectural models. Hurricane Helene in 1958 not only tore up roads but also destroyed "75 percent of the dune-stabilization work completed on Ocracoke Island,” notes the seashore’s administrative history, The Creation and Establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

"Hurricane Donna, which struck on September 11, 1960, was even worse,” the history continues. “One of the five strongest storms on record, Donna hit the Outer Banks with winds up to 123 miles per hour, causing extensive damage to the dune system on Ocracoke Island and scattered damage to dunes, buildings, roads, walks and vegetation throughout the park.”

The Park Service in 1966 brought more than $1 million ($1.4 million was budgeted from 1956-1966 to be spent on stabilization work and erosion control), and bulldozers to the task. But neither proved effective over the long term, as the seashore’s history notes:

Regardless of the method ... neither fences nor bulldozed dunes would stop the westward movement of the dunes, although that fact was not yet universally accepted as inevitable. On January 26, 1957, Governor Hodges dramatically asserted that the Outer Banks were slowly receding 'due in part to the action of the winds and ocean currents and to the destruction of the dunes and vegetation by man.' Unless every effort is made, declared Hodges, 'to rehabilitate, stabilize and protect the Outer Banks, huge expenditures will be required in the future to provide protective work for the mainland after the Outer Banks are gone.

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Hurricane Isabel in 2003 blew a hole through Hatteras Island as these before and after photos shot. NOAA photos.

Nearly 50 years later a solution to the Atlantic and its hurricanes remained to be found. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel, a Category 2 storm, cleaved Hatteras Island in two as the overwash from the storm surge created a new inlet from sea to sound just below Frisco and Hatteras.

The cut was filled in, but how long before another storm reopens it or another new inlet elsewhere on the Outer Banks?

Species Caught In A Bind

An ongoing problem on Cape Hatteras that results from the constant bulldozing of sand back into place is that wildlife habitat is lost to the pounding sea. The outcome is that human visitors, birds, and turtles are squeezed into the same shrinking places on the beach. And that has not always gone well.

When I reached the cape in late June I was greeted by thin ropes, festooned here and there with fluttering red tape and held up by posts that ring some of the dunes and beaches at the national seashore. They were not there as early Christmas bunting or decorations for a seaside cotillion. Rather, they warn you to keep your distance.

This signage might not be the warmest Outer Banks welcome from the Park Service, but it's there for a reason, one that rankles some of the locals; specifically those who fish the surf. I was reminded of the anger over those roped boundaries as I began to photograph surfcasters with their rigs lined up near the surf line.

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Red tape festoons exclosures for sea turtles and shorebirds. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Standing on the glistening beach, focusing on the trucks, I was verbally chastened by one man who shouted, "Be sure to get the signs in the photo!"

His point, of course, was to note where he could, and could not, drive his pickup truck. To the casual observer, though, the section of beach he was on, and the section he could not enter, were identical: Both were wide, firm stretches of tawny sand being lapped by the mid-morning surf.

Still, the difference in the beach might as well have been the difference between night and day to the determined surfcaster, the one who heads to the Outer Banks for some of the best fishing on the East Coast, not simply to watch the waves come ashore. Not too far behind me, and behind the do-not-enter signs, was Cape Point, the elbow's crook, if you will, of Hatteras Island, the point that juts farthest to the southeast into the Atlantic.

Here the south-running Labrador Current meets the northern-bound Gulf Stream, creating a swirling, salty convergence of water that not only shapes the dangerous Diamond Shoals that long have menaced sailers but also brings to the surfcaster's hooks a potpourri of Neptune's delights: bluefish and croakers, Spanish mackerel and flounder, and, perhaps most cherished by the locals, Red drum.

Proof of the hearty catch from Cape Hatteras litters the record books. Back in 1972 James Hussey landed a 31-pound, 12-ounce bluefish from a Cape Hatteras beach, a whopper still recognized as a world all-tackle record. A dozen years later David Deuel caught a 94-pound, 2-ounce red drum, a monstrous catch that still ranks as a world all-tackle record, from a Hatteras Island beach. And in 1987 Robert Cranton landed a 13-pound Spanish mackerel from Oregon Inlet; yes, it too is a world record.

Many other North Carolina state records were written from along the national seashore, as well as from its younger sibling, Cape Lookout National Seashore.

To more than a few, getting to these beaches to wet a line requires an ORV -- off-road vehicle. Though some might envision ORVs as pickups tricked out with over-sized tires, jacked up chassises, and massive grills that blast across the landscape, to most that’s not the sort of ORVing associated with Cape Hatteras.

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Surfcasters prefer to reach the beach with trucks. This photo was taken a week before the Fourth of July weekend, when traffic was expected to be much heavier. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Here ORVs are used primarily as transportation to get from Point A to Point B. Facing long stretches of beach that separate access points and favorite fishing points, and armed with lots of gear (multiple fishing poles, tackle, lunch and snacks, beverages, umbrellas, beach chairs) for a day on the beach, many surfcasters rely on their four-wheel drive trucks to travel from pavement and down the beach.

While surfcasters use whip-like tosses to cast their bait beyond the breakers, those breakers can work against the surfcasters, and even beachcombers, by turning some stretches of the seashore’s beaches into perfect habitat for piping plovers.

Plovers are small birds that have been listed as a threatened species since January 10, 1986, birds that skitter, nervously it appears, back and forth across the beach looking for a morsel or two to eat. Just about 6.5 inches from beak to tail tip and tipping the scales at only a couple ounces, piping plovers are bland in plumage, with whites, grays and buffs contrasted only by a black band of feathers circling their necks.

Also attracted by these beaches are trunk-sized loggerhead sea turtles, females of which come ashore here to lay their Ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. These turtles (which can reach 200 pounds at maturity) also are considered to be threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a listing brought about by human encroachment, predation by native and non-native predators, "disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting," and a host of other problems, ranging from marine pollution to boat strikes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And then there are other species, “species of concern” in North Carolina, such as the American oystercatcher and the least tern, and even seabeach amaranth, a plant. All are species the Park Service must manage with hopes of increasing their numbers (though the amaranth hasn’t been found on the seashore in recent years).

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Piping plover eggs can be hard to spot on the beach. NPS report.

Where these species are found on the seashore, the Park Service is mandated by the Endangered Species Act and its own regulations to do its best to not only preserve the species but encourage population growth. And those mandates have led to seasonal closures of vast stretches of beach, closures that have some who live and play at Cape Hatteras up in arms.

Perhaps the resulting friction that exists between the surfcasters and the Park Service over how to manage these species would have been resolved long ago, and long before reliance on ORVs to access various points of the seashore became so popular, had the Park Service held true to the seashore's enacting legislation or followed President Richard Nixon’s 1972 executive order to create an off-road management plan.

That the agency stood idly by while ORV traffic grew substantially on the seashore, so much so that piping plovers, loggerhead turtles, and seabeach amaranth were being impacted, was the argument behind a lawsuit two conservation groups brought in 2007 to force the Park Service to develop an ORV management plan.

That lawsuit spawned a cataclysmic collision between those who rely on ORVs to reach favored spots, land managers who by law must help these species, and Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, which brought the lawsuit through Southern Environmental Law Center.

The confluence of these species -- surfcasters, beach roamers, shorebirds, turtles and plants -- has cast a controversial regulatory net far and wide. It has upended the beach-driving landscape at Cape Hatteras by shutting off various beaches various lengths of time, including throughout the peak of the summer for some. While an interim plan has been governing ORV and pedestrian access since 2008, a permanent plan is set to take effect next year, barring a lawsuit.

The goal is to offer as much protection as possible for piping plovers, which lay their three or four sand-colored eggs out in the open, among the seashells, from any and all predators as well as passersby who walk on two feet or ride in trucks or beach buggies. To accomplish that, park rangers string red-tape-fluttering ropes to create 1,000-meter off-road vehicle buffer zones (300 meters for pedestrians) around nest sites when piping plover chicks are present.

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ORV bans don't always protect wildlife. This crushed female loggerhead turtle was discovered on an Ocracoke Beach in June 2010. NPS photo.

Another result of the interim plan is that both the number of plovers nesting on the beaches, and producing offspring, and the number of loggerhead turtles coming to scoop out their nests, has grown, in some cases substantially.

From just six pairs in 2006 the number of piping plovers coming to the seashore to nest has grown to 12 pairs in 2010. Not a large number, but significant nonetheless. From those dozen pairs in 2010, 15 chicks successfully fledged, a number roughly twice the average rate of the past 18 years.

The growth in breeding pairs and successful fledging is attributed by seashore officials to “(T)he monitoring efforts and management strategy formally changed in 2006 with the implementation of the (interim ORV plan) and then again in 2008 with the CD (consent decree).”

Sea turtle nesting, primarily from loggerhead turtles, has been much more spectacular in terms of numbers. While 76 nests were counted in 2006, in 2010 the total reached 153 nests, according to seashore records.

Tomorrow: In part two of this series, we look at some of the diverging viewpoints that have erupted over the seashore's wildlife.

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We vactioned in Rodanthe around 1996 and it is still our favorite vacation and we have been to the Rockies,Yellowstone the Smokies and up and down the Gulf Beach's but the barrier Islands offer far more things to do then any other place we have been to!

what a fantastic place! heard from some former camp hosts there, that this is a very tough place to camp host. perhaps the park is understaffed? too common in our economy, but they were demanding way too much work and way too many hours for unpaid volunteers.

I am pleased to find this article on Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. I will refrain commenting, for the most part, until reading part 2.
I do hope it will contain a little elaboration concerning the photo of the turtle, as many may be inclined to assume that it was a civilian motorist that struck and killed this turtle. Also hope you will elaborate on the possible reasons for the numbers stated for various years as to bird and turtle nesting and hatch rates. As you know, it is quite complex and since most of the various restrictions and "supporting activities" performed by the National Park Service were implemented at about the same time, it is difficult to determine which of the restrictions and "supporting activities" is actually responsible for the numbers, if any at all.
Ron (obxguys) 

Ron, as you're well-aware, this is indeed a complex topic, and easily could have taken more words than I've already written (@5000), but I'll try to ensure your points are covered.
That said, I am a bit curious about your comment that folks might "be inclined to assume that it was a civilian motorist that struck and killed this turtle." Seashore officials say they didn't have anyone out on the beach that night. If you have evidence pointing to the responsible party, we'd definitely be interested in hearing it.

Kurt, What you say is true. However, I would add that, I have no evidence as to who is responsible. I have not heard or seen anything indicating that NPS or anyone else has any evidence as to who is responsible. Someone please correct me if I am wrong. The beach was 'Closed'. I don't think this had happened in all the years it was open for night access. But that's another subject. 
Since the photo is very graphic and was extensively distributed, with, I believe, intent to influence public opinion, I feel it important to point this out. Sorry if you disagree. If you were "on our side of the fence" you might feel it more significant. Guilt by association and lack of evidence to the contrary, does exist, particularly at this time at Cape Hatteras.

Ron, as you know, I'm not on anyone's side of the fence.

I should not have said that the way I did. I was generalizing and should not have.
My Apologies,

I regret that you chose the shortened version of the name CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE RECREATIONAL AREA, not surprising since NPS has been trying to camoflage the reason that this land was set aside. Set aside to insure that all Americans would have access to ocean beaches and they would not be limited to a few wealthy individuals. As NPS further limits vehicle access to this park more and more young and old visitors are denided this access. You speak of the beauty of the convergence of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream @ Cape Point, How many of us & perhaps you, would be unable to see this natural wonder if not for vehicle access. How many fewer people would view Old Faithful if they had to walk a mile over hot sand? How many children will be denied access to the safest beaches; soundside @ Oregon Inlet, South Beach @ both Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island.
The issue is not surfcasters vs birds, the issue is the overly agressive actions to close beaches that have for generations welcomed both human visitors and visiting mammals.

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