Padre Island National Seashore Offers Lots of Fun for Visitors and Lots of Problems for Managers

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released at Padre Island National Seashore. Photo by Adam Webb via Wikipedia.

Padre Island National Seashore celebrates its 46th anniversary on September 28. Extending about 68 miles along the Texas Gulf Coast from the Corpus Christi vicinity to the Brownsville vicinity close to the Mexican border, this narrow coastal barrier offers plenty of high quality recreation. There are many managerial difficulties, though, and some may get significantly worse.

“Padre” encompasses the longest remaining undeveloped (and nearly unbroken) coastal barrier left in the world. And it’s been playground for a long time, too. Padre is noted for its wide, sandy, “drivable” beaches, as well as excellent seaside camping tent and RV), water and beach recreation (sunbathing, swimming, fishing, beachcombing, shelling, picnicking, sailing, boating, water skiing, windsurfing, scuba diving), wildlife viewing, and nature photography.

Padre is a birder’s paradise. At least 380 species of birds have been observed in the park. That’s about 45% of all the bird species ever documented in North America. The park’s three main birding areas are the shoreline, the park road, and Bird Island Basin (BIB).

Padre’s abundant bird and marine life includes some threatened and endangered wildlife species. One of the more notable ones is the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which is the world’s most endangered sea turtle as well as the only sea turtle that nests during the day.

2008 has been a good year for sea turtles. A record 102 Kemp’s Ridley turtles nested on North Padre Island. This is also the first year that more than 10,000 hatchlings were released at a Texas coast site since record-keeping began in the 1970s.

In June, much to the astonishment and delight of rangers and wildlife biologists, a huge leatherback turtle – rarely seen at Padre -- lumbered ashore to lay her eggs. This was the first documented leatherback nesting at Padre since the 1930s.

Padre attracted about 658,000 visitors last year. The park’s beach areas are readily accessible from Corpus Christi and heavily visited. The college Spring Break season brings a big surge in beach driving and beach use.

ORVs are not the only beach transportation. The park has two wheelchairs designed for use on loose sand, and visitors can borrow them at no charge.

Padre’s managerial problems involve such diverse issues as resource damage related to hurricanes and tropical storms, marine trash and tar accumulating along the shoreline, ORV driving on the beach, threats to sea turtle nesting sites, and natural gas exploration and extraction activities within the park’s borders.

Many people are surprised to learn that the extraction and transportation of nonfederal oil and gas takes place within the boundaries of Padre Island National Seashore. These activities actually predate Padre’s establishment, having begun in the early 1950’s

Now that oil and gas prices have skyrocketed, Padre is experiencing a period of new drilling. The National Park Service has found it difficult to manage these activities so as to protect park resources and values.

In recent years, Padre has experienced increasingly serious smuggling activities involving drugs and immigrants coming from northeastern Mexico. Few visitors have been injured or threatened by these activities, but there is a risk of ugly confrontations with potentially tragic consequences.

Now that the U.S.-Mexican border has been sealed more effectively in other areas, activity in the Padre Island area can be expected to increase. Offsetting this somewhat is the current downturn in the American economy, especially the severe decline in housing construction, a major employer of Mexican illegals.

Sea level rise accompanying global warming poses problems for the park, much of which is at or close to sea level (and nowhere more than 75 feet above it). Hurricanes and tropical storms that strike during the warmer months occasionally cause significant erosion and damage from high winds, torrential rains, and storm surges.