The House was in recess for a month, but that ended September 8. Now there’ll be a flurry of hearings, including many of great interest to national park users and managers.
Among the items on today’s agenda is a House subcommittee hearing on a bill proposing to reinstate older, more lenient rules for ORV beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The current rules, imposed to protect shorebird and sea turtle nesting sites, seasonally and intermittently restrict beach driving access to popular fishing areas. Environmentalists defend the currently strict controls on beach driving, arguing that protecting wildlife resources should trump recreationists’ demands for convenient ORV access to the beach. Beach driving 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. Area businesses detest the restrictions too, citing reduced spending by ORV users.
Today the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands will consider a bill, H.R. 6233 (Jones), that would reinstate the Interim Management Strategy governing off-road vehicle use at Cape Hatteras. The Interim Management Strategy, is an older, more lenient set of rules that was in force until this past April when environmentalists won an out-of-court settlement (the 2008 Consent Decree) compelling the National Park Service to adopt stricter regulations for beach ORV use at Cape Hatteras. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Walter Jones (R-N.C.), essentially wants Congress to negate the out-of-court settlement.
The environmental NGOs that won the out-of-court settlement -- Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society -- believe that the stricter rules that the settlement brought about are appropriate and should remain in effect. At today’s hearing, a lawyer representing the NGOs will testify that the current strict rules for protecting the nesting habitat of piping plovers and sea turtles have played a key role in the recently improved nesting success of these species.
While we await the outcome of this debate, the National Park Service continues to work on its ORV Management Plan for Cape Hatteras. The project uses the negotiated rulemaking approach, a consensual planning strategy that relies on a federal advisory committee of local community and national interest groups.
When finally implemented, will this negotiated set of rules bring an end to decades of conflict over ORV use and protected species management at Cape Hatteras National Seashore? Nobody really believes that, but at least it will remove some of the uncertainties.