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Groups Sue Cape Hatteras National Seashore Over ORV Traffic

Southern Environmental Law Center photo.

During busy summer days more than 2,000 vehicles a day can be found cruising the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. Southern Environmental Law Center photo.

Back in July I predicted that the managers of Cape Hatteras National Seashore would be sued for allowing off-road vehicles to navigate the seashore without a valid ORV management plan in place.

Well, that lawsuit has arrived in court.

Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society have joined forces to bring the lawsuit, arguing that the seashore is not adequately protecting the nests of sea turtles and shorebirds. The lawsuit contends the National Park Service has run afoul of the National Park Organic Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the enabling legislation for the seashore, and the Park Service's own Management Policies by implementing an interim ORV management plan and failing to produce a long-term management plan.

The National Park Service’s Interim Plan and the ORV use it allows are substantially harming – and will continue to harm – important populations of endangered and threatened sea turtle species, threatened, special concern, or significantly rare bird species, and a threatened plant species, as well as other natural resources, serenity, and other recreational uses of the Seashore generally, reads one of the claims.

"No one wants to deny the rights of fishermen and families to enjoy beaches along the National Seashore, but our beaches are turning into highways," said Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center that brought the lawsuit. "In the meantime, the Park Service has stood idly by, shirking its responsibility" to institute rules.

What's disturbing about this turn of events is that Interior officials were well aware this past summer that they were treading on dangerous legal ground by continuing to allow ORVs to cruise along the seashore even though Cape Hatteras did not have a management plan in place. Even Mike Murray, the seashore's superintendent, realized the ORV use was illegal.

"It's a clear statement that there's no authority to allow off-road vehicle driving on the beach," Mr. Murray said after a federal judge noted, in a case of reckless driving on the seashore, that the seashore didn't have regulations in place to govern ORV travel. "Under federal regulations and executive orders, the Park Service needs to develop an ORV management plan and regulations."

It would seem that the Park Service and Interior Department prefer to spend tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, on legal costs while jeopardizing nesting sea birds and turtles rather than offending a special interest group.


I chased a plastic bag that had been picked up and carried by the wind about a half mile down the beach (the wind was quite fierce on the the shore that day) because I care so deeply about my favorite vacation spot. Chances are, I wouldn't put that much effort into it in my own apartment complex.

My group of travelers and I were completely bummed out when we cruised down there this past weekend, with the intent of doing some fishing at The Point, only to find out that we couldn't get anywhere near it. We assumed that it had to do with wildlife preservation but never once thought that it would pertain to ORVers in particular. We always do a a good once-over before we head out onto the sand to make that everything is in proper running order (moreso because getting stranded in the sand, I imagine is not fun) so it can't be because of car fluids. Exhausts perhaps? No. If that was the case they'd have to shut down The Highway To Swell (NC 12) because that would be a contributor to greenhouse gasses as well. Erosion? Unline agricultural soil, ocean sand is in a constant state of regeneration. If the ocean shore is erroding, I would think it's because of rising tide lines and not because of 25 mph vehicles. Dune Erosion? I have yet to see an ORV attempt one (it's blatantly forboden) but have certainly seen pedestrians hurdle them with disregard for the flood-preventing hills.

Of course all of these statements are open to criticism but I find it hard to believe that the well-meaning drivers on the beaches (who, by the way are probablly some of the most courteous, cautious drivers one could encounter) are responsible for the decline in bird and turtle nesting and the destruction of the beach.

P.S. Things change. Nothing stays the same and that includes wildlife habitats and their numbers in population.

Anonymous (from 10/21),
You have clearly never stepped foot on Hatteras or Ocracoke Island. If you had, you would understand how utterly asinine and inaccurate your characterization of ORV activity there is.

Now to your "get your fat butts out of your toy ORVs" comment (you are quite the gifted and creative writer by the way). What would you have me tell my disabled daughter who can only dream of traversing the thick sand of Outer Banks beaches on foot?

It is amazing that these people are allowed to waste such resources on something they have never seen. I personally challenge any of these yahoos to show me video of what they claim. If in fact these accusations were true don't you think they would have a picture of donut marks with hundreds of oil puddles on their website? I have been staying if Frisco for over ten years and I have abided by every sign designating a habitat or nesting area. These idiots lose sight that when they eliminate all the traffic (ORV and Pedestrian) from the beach there will be no reason to rebuild it from the next hurricane.

Exactly how many times have you been to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore? As a Dare County native, I find it amusing that people who do not live here or visit our beaches very seldom are so quick to judge. We have had many miles of our beaches closed and protected for nesting purposes annually over the past 10 years. People who are born and raised here have an extraordinary sense of environmental issues and how everything we do has some type of effect. The number of birds that are actually nesting here are very few (high teens – low twenties is high estimate). They are more than adequately protected by a professional competent national parks staff. As for the sea turtles, we have one of the best programs to protect them and their nesting sites on the east coast. Most of the people who drive on our beaches are respectful of our environment. The NCDOT has posted signs at every beach access ramp. These signs describe beach driving etiquette. Does everyone always take the time to read them or follow the rules? No. The national park service responds quickly to complaints. These complaints result in written citations to those who are in violation.

How many of you use chemically engineered fertilizer for your lawn? We get your run off. Your run off lowers the amount of oxygen in our waters killing many species of fish in our estuaries. Many people here are commercial fisherman who rely on these species of fish and their governmentally regulated stocks to make a living. Do you enjoy eating seafood? People living inland in North Carolina have a direct effect on our fish stocks and other environmental issues here in Dare County. The county with the highest cancer rates in the entire state of North Carolina. We don’t tell you how to run your business, farm, or what ever it is you do, so do not tell the residents of Dare County what we should and should not do.

As a native Cape Codder I have been visiting the Outer Banx for 5 years now. I leave one beachside community in the summer and happily drive 18 hrs to get to yours. Beach access has become so limited here that I am more than happy to pack up my family of 6 and head to your beautiful beaches. We shut down large portions of our waterfront when a single Piping Plover nest is found. Our towns charge us to use our own beaches and the rich continue to use their power to close off sections of beach that have been for years open to everyone. The reason I head to the Outer Banx is that it reminds me of what the Cape used to be like when I was a kid, and before it was hijacked by limosine liberals and over zealous environmentalists. In my years of coming to your community I have only observed courteous and respectful ORVers. Once you start limiting access you will be done as a destination resort. We are all in favor of protecting the environment and it's wildlife, but by bending to the vocal minority and their all or nothing philosophies you will only lose your rights, your traditions and your incomes.

I have lived on Hatteras Island my entire life, and I have grown up learning the importance of preserving and protecting our fragile environment. While driving on the beach. Park Rangers and self-policing, as VCHawk said, account for the responsible behavior of drivers on the beach. I have never seen anyone doing donuts or driving recklessly on the sand. To do that would be suicide, at the very least to your vehicle. I am more worried for my safety when crossing highway 12 in the summer than I am the beach.

The argument has been made that pedestrian traffic will still be permitted. However, only a small percentage of the beach is accessible to pedestrians. Cape Point, in Buxton, is almost entirely inaccessible, unless you want to walk a mile or more in the sand, in addition to the distance to the beach itself. Ryan, I agree that exercise is good, but not everyone can make that walk to get to the most desirable recreation areas. The elderly and disabled enjoy fishing at the point and other areas that cannot be feasibly reached by foot. Are we to deny them this?

Banning beach driving would also have an economic impact on the area. Nearly all of the 5,000 residents of Hatteras Island depend on tourism on some level. ANY loss in income could be disastrous for already struggling families. My mother works for a vacation rental company, and several clients who have booked with her for years have not rebooked, stating that they will not vacation there if they cannot drive on the beach.

The national seashore was NOT set up as a wildlife refuge. There is a wildlife refuge just north of Rodanthe. No ORVs there. And the beach is still eroding there, by the way. From what I've seen, it's eroding at a greater rate than the beaches that allow ORV use.

Another reason that pedestrian-only access to the beach would not work: People driving ORVs use designated beach access areas. Driving over the dunes is simply madness. Do you believe that all pedestrians only use designated walk-overs? From having lived there my entire life, seeing vehicles parked alongside the highway at the S-curves just north of Rodanthe, I have seen the problems of pedestrian-only access to certain areas of the beach. People walk over the dunes with no regard for the fragile plant life that holds them together. That is why the dunes just north of Rodanthe wash out so often and cause problems for drivers trying to get on or off the island.

I agree that something should be done to either limit beach traffic or to make sure that ORV users know the rules. One way to do the latter is by requiring a special permit to drive on the beach. People living on the Outer Banks could get this permit as an endorsement on their license, similar to a motorcycle endorsement, etc. Take a separate exam at the DMV on the rules and regulations about beach driving, and issue a sticker or rear-view-mirror hanger with this license so that park rangers know those permitted and those not. Vacationers could go to the Dare County Park Service Office in Manteo and get a temporary permit by taking a similar exam. This would require a lot of coordination and cooperation between all levels of government, but it could work. Making sure people know the rules is one way to improve beach traffic. If limiting the number of vehicles concerns you, issue a limited number of permits per week or per day for tourists, limit the permits to one per family/vacation group, and have some way to make an exception for the elderly and the disabled. These permits would have some cost associated with them, and the money brought in could help offset the cost of implementing such a plan.

To sum up:
Beach driving is not quite the ecological disaster people are imaginging.
A ban on beach driving would cause some popular recreation areas to be inaccessible, often to the elderly and disabled who have vacationed here for generations.
This ban would have economic consequences.
There is already a wildlife refuge in place.
Pedestrian traffic on the dunes would cause more damage than there is already, and this traffic would be increased by banning ORV use.
Something needs to be done: Permits.

See you at the beach.

I've been coming down to the Outer Banks every year save one since 1965. Hatteras Island for the last 15 years. We always got a house very close to the southern edge of Avon. To date, I've never seen anyone doing donuts, or driving recklessly (On the beach.... highway 12 might be another matter). Perhaps one yahoo that got his vehicle a little too close to the ocean and almost lost it in the drink, but otherwise, the OVRrs are a very sedate group.

Oil on the beach use to be a problem in the 60s, but that was from ships at sea. It's very clean there now.

The folks that get themselves worked up over what they think is right for the environment sound like they've never been to Hatteras. You guys need to learn about the area a little bit before going off into histrionics.


VCHawk Fumes?on the wind driven beach?Oil spills?We are Not the Exxon Valdez here..We do NOT run rampant,we ARE supervised by nps rangers and self police-ing.There are no"woodland trails"to access surf fishing sites,this is a beach,dear.This NOT an abuse of nature...nature cleanses this area with every (frequent) overwashing storm.Wildlife is still abundant there and the housing explosion does not affect the confines of the national park where they cannot be built.Come visit,we will give you a ride if you'd like and show you the splendor where land meets water then you can have a more realistic view than the one you're getting fro reading comic books.Have a happy day.

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