National Park Service Issues Beach Access Report for Cape Hatteras National Seashore ORV Users

ORVs on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Photo by Southern Environmental Law Center.

If you are interested in ORV use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you should read The National Park Service Beach Access Report for June 12, 2008. This recently released report is a highly useful compendium of information about resource protection areas and related regulations, policies, and practices at the seashore. Anyone who uses an ORV at Cape Hatteras should read it, if only to decrease the odds of an unhappy encounter with enforcement rangers.

Park officials would like your opinion about improving this Beach Access Report. The website for the report includes this statement:

With the availability of the Google Earth maps, we are considering streamlining the Beach Access Report [this week] to show only what areas are open and what areas are closed with the related mileages. We would remove all the “history” and prenesting closure language out of the report. If you feel strongly, either for or against this simplification of the Beach Access Report, please feel free to send a brief email stating your reasons. We appreciate your comments.

This emotion-charged issue certainly has an interesting history. As reported in the Traveler, the issue of ORV use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore was brought to the fore back in March when Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society brought suit against the National Park Service, alleging that public use of ORVs at the national seashore was not being properly regulated and was causing unacceptable harm to nesting birds and sea turtles.

In their lawsuit, the conservation groups contended that the Park Service violated the terms 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 only an interim ORV management plan and failing to produce a long-term management plan.

The NGOs insisted that the Park Service should restrict ORV access to South Ocracoke, Hatteras Spit, North Ocracoke, Cape Point, South Beach and Bodie Island Spit for up to three years because of the presence of piping plovers, which have been a federally listed threatened species under terms of the Endangered Species Act since January 1986. Support for this idea came from various quarters, including an influential North Carolina newspaper that editorialized in favor of restricting ORV use and chastised the Park Service for failing to adequately protect nesting birds and sea turtles.

ORV users, many of whom depend on their off-road vehicles for transportation to and from a half-dozen or so favored surf fishing sites, strongly opposed additional restrictions on ORV access to the beach. One rally of ORV users at the Cape Point beach drew more than 200 protesters.

Local business owners complained that unduly restricting ORV beach access at the seashore would discourage tourism, drive away customers, and cause them irreparable financial harm. Lending support to this assertion, some ORV users in distant locales said that they would stop coming to Cape Hatteras if they weren’t allowed to drive ORVs on the beach.

Things came to a head on April 30, 2008, when U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle signed a consent decree adopting the Park Service Interim Strategy. Notably, this provided buffers around portions of the spring and summer bird breeding and nesting areas. A 1,000-meter vehicle perimeter and a 300-meter pedestrian perimeter were to be established around piping plover chicks until they have fledged.

On May 1st, the Park Service announced a settlement that fended off the lawsuit filed by the conservation groups. The agreement provided guidelines for protecting the nesting areas of piping plovers and other species while allowing recreational use of the beach. The Park Service said it would allow ORV beach on a year-round basis, subject to wildlife protection regulations provided under terms of the consent decree, while a permanent management plan was developed.

The restrictions were to be lifted after the summer nesting season was over. This would allow ORV beach access on a much less restricted basis during the prime fall surf fishing season.

Since the consent decree was announced, a number of acts of vandalism on the beach have occurred. Vandals have torn down signs designating buffers around nest sites.

The Cape Hatteras ORV beach access issue has drawn national attention. Sport Fishing magazine, speaking in behalf of the American Sport Fishing Association, denounced the settlement, arguing that the terms are unnecessarily restrictive, detrimental to sport fishing, and will cause unreasonable losses to the local economy by stifling access to prime surf fishing spots.

The June 12 report referenced at the beginning of this article provides background and additional details about the restrictions currently in place as a result of Judge Boyle’s consent decree of April 30.

Judging from the extensive commentary our articles have generated, ORV use at Cape Hatteras is easily one of the most contentious issues to come up on the Traveler. We trust that you will not hesitate to let us know what you think of the June 12 report. And by all means, give Cape Hatteras National Seashore managers the benefit of your advice concerning the format and content of the Beach Access Report. Don’t delay, since the “streamlining” proposal under consideration is supposed to be acted on this week.


Sad to hear that our great national treasures are slowly being cordoned off from American travelers. Thanks for blogging.