Beach Driving Ban Brings Fort Matanzas National Monument into Compliance, But Angers Matanzas Beach Users

Now that Matanzas beach is off-limits to ORVs, the Park Service will have to revise the park's map. NPS photo via Wikimedia.

The coarse, densely-packed coquina sand of Florida’s Fort Matanzas National Monument beach offers a firm, very “drivable” surface for beach-going ORVs. Area residents have long considered “beach cruising” to be an important, perhaps even indispensable element of recreation and tourism oriented to the beachfront. For several generations, people from the St. Augustine area have happily driven on the beach to cool off, fish, cast-net for mullet, swim, sightsee, and of course, show visitors a good time.

Unfortunately for beach driving enthusiasts, area tourism interests, and the National Park Service’s aspiration for good public relations, the Park Service banned beach driving at Matanzas effective January 1st of this year. This has put the Park Service in the awkward position of defending an action that, legally speaking, it should have taken way back in the early 1970s. What happens when you tell people that, after nearly four decades of pretty much ignoring the letter of the law, you’ve finally decided to hew to its chapter and verse? Well, as the situation at Matanzas amply illustrates, you raise hackles and you get quite an earful.

This issue has a very interesting background. Although Fort Matanzas National Monument was proclaimed in 1924, and the monument has been part of the National Park System since the agency reorganization in 1933, the beach at the center of this controversy did not become a part of the monument until the property was donated to the park in the 1960s. By that time, driving on the Matanzas beach was a well-established practice that the Park Service was loathe to interfere with. Then, a presidential directive issued in 1972 introduced a new dynamic.

Executive Order 11644, which President Nixon issued on February 8, 1972, directly governs the use of off-road vehicles, including vehicles driven on beaches, in National Park System units. This executive order, and the NPS regulations established in compliance with it, explicitly prohibit recreational ORV use in National Park System units, except those areas specifically designated for such use in national recreation areas, national seashores, national lakeshores, and national preserves.

Since Fort Matanzas bears a national monument designation, it doesn’t fall into one of those categories. Ergo, ORV use on the Matanzas beach is now -- and since 1972 has been -- illegal.

The fact that the Park Service continued to allow beach driving at Matansaz for the better part of 40 years after it was banned by executive order nicely illustrates the difference between legal matters and practical ones. The law specifies that I must drive no more than 70 mph on a particular stretch of interstate highway, but I drive 75 or so to keep from being run over by other motorists. The law specifies that the superintendent mustn’t allow driving on the national monument beach he administers (in this case under the administrative umbrella of Castillo de San Marco National Monument), but he condones it to keep from being run over by angry locals. Park administrators didn’t invent the “go along to get along” strategy, but they sure know its value and can use it with great skill.

All things considered, it was pretty smooth riding for Matanzas beach drivers until quite recently. With park officials giving scarcely a wink-and-a-nod to Executive Order 11644, ORV owners enjoyed their beach driving at Matanzas decade after decade while few objections were raised and none were taken very seriously. Even after the park began enforcing seasonal driving restrictions to protect the park's Least tern nesting colony and other shorebirds, most beach driving enthusiasts believed that the Park Service would continue to treat beach driving at Matanzas as a protected tradition.

Last summer, however, everything changed. Citing the provisions of Executive Order 11644 (as amended), the park announced that beach driving would be banned at Matanzas effective January 1, 2010. The Park Service finally had to admit that limited seasonal restrictions are not the same as, and do not provide the resource protection advantages of, the permanent beach driving ban that the law calls for in national monuments. Only the real thing would do, and there it was.

Now that the new ban is in effect, fishermen will find it much harder to get to the best areas at the south end of Anastasia Island for netting mullet and angling for redfish, trout, drum, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, whiting, and pompano. The Beach Ramp near the park's northern boundary will remain open, since it is a public highway, and that will insure access for boaters.

Beach driving advocates have labeled the ban intrinsically unfair and insist that it will drive away visitors and harm the regional economy. Called upon to defend the beach driving tradition at Matanzas, the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners, which has no authority in this matter, simply adopted a resolution which supports “… the continuation of beach driving on the Fort Matanzas National Monument property in a manner that allows recreational and economic activity while protecting the environment.”

Park superintendent Gordie Wilson has said that the beach driving door remains ajar at Matanzas.

If at some point in the future the National Monument receives legislative or regulatory authority to permit vehicle access that does not impair resources, vehicles could return to the beach. That process could take several years, as it would require a formal rulemaking and analysis of environmental impacts.

Translation: You might get back on the beach with your ORVs some day, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

Postscript: In Florida, the area between the mean high water mark and the ocean is legally considered state highway. Nevertheless, beach driving is a dying tradition in the four-county northeastern region of the state. It is already prohibited in all of Flagler County and in most of Duval and Nassau Counties. St. Johns County (greater St. Augustine) is the last of the four counties where beach driving remains strongly protected. The St. Johns County Board of Commissioners has promised it won’t close any more county-regulated beaches to driving.

Comments

This is definitely a tough issue for the locals. A number of them still rely pretty heavily on fishing to supplement their own groceries, and these are not the type of people to afford boats and trailers, and the insurance and fees that go with them. There is some parking in the area, but it is limited and a bit of a hike from the main part of the inlet.

I understand the laws, I understand the environmental concerns. However, when we start limiting people's ability to work to provide their own food (which should be encouraged considering the state of our welfare system) I do think we need to take a second look.

Thanks for the commentary Lynn. You've addressed a facet of this issue that escaped my notice. It's a reminder that this ban affects real people, some of whom are struggling to get by in tough times. I do think this is a social concern that ought to be addressed in a community-wide frame of reference, though.

Looking at the map, all points along the shoreline are within 1 mile of existing parking lots. If it is possible to add parking just north of Matanzas Inlet, the entire shore would be within half a mile of parking. And, not knowing the area but knowing a little about fish, I suspect that the best fishing would be along Matanzas Inlet, not the stretches of the shore that would still be far from parking.

Tomp, you are quite correct in pointing out that there are no vast distances involved here, but I doubt that your "it isn't all that far to walk" argument would carry much weight with people who insist that driving on the beach at Matanzas is a right, not just a convenience. Too, there are some people who, because of age or infirmity, cannot get to their favorite fishing spots at Matanzas without driving on the beach. I do realize you already understand these facts. I'm just underlining them.

You're right, Tom, that adding parking would be a big help, and might ease the sting some. On a good fishing day (prior to the driving ban), all of the current parking lots are full, as well as the shoreline, so it's not like those lots were empty, waiting to be filled with the displaced cars.

And there is most certainly an attitude that driving on the beach is a right among the locals, which it obviously is not. But many, many of them grew up in this area with every generation of their family driving to the inlet to fish and swim weekly, or even more than weekly. When you've grown up doing it, (and remember the park officials chose to allow it) it starts to look a lot like a right, even when it's not.

Also, just for trivia's sake...the article mentions that beach driving has been prohibited in adjoining Flagler County for a long time. That's pretty much because there is no where to drive on the beach in Flagler - A1A runs right next to the shoreline for a good part of the county, with parking right along the side in some areas, and other stretches are simply too rocky or soft to even consider. St John's County, however, has pretty huge expanses of hard, sand-packed beach in the areas where driving is allowed, so it makes more sense.

Appreciate the article, by the way. Nice to see something local pop up in my usual reading assignments.

Thanks for the feedback, Lynn. I'd like to write an update on the Matanzas beach driving issue one of these days. Do you by any chance know anything about that protest that was held down there on Monday? I have only some sketchy info. I guess I need to make a few calls.

I have only seen the article in the St Augustine local paper about it, here: http://staugustine.com/news/local-news/2010-01-02/driving-ban-fuels-protest-beach

As you can see from the responding comments, there are nutcases on both sides of the issue. There have also been multiple editorial letters posted over the last few weeks, both for and against.

A lot of the bitterness might be because this is only one of a number of current movements that restrict fishing - recent licensing changes in Florida require adults to buy a license to fish from the shore when they used to only be required to fish from a boat. Also, the current fight over the red snapper ban which affects a lot of livelihoods in the area - it's a tough time to be a fisherman in North Florida right now.

Thanks for the feedback, Lynn. I wasn't aware of the license requirement and red snapper ban as complicating issues, but I can certainly see their relevance. Lost of people down your way must feel that the burden of government regs is resting heavy on their backs.

This is the same type of battle that has been going on in Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Recreation Area. The same Executive Order was used to 'help' shut down driving on the beaches "...to protect resources...". Google Cape Hatteras to find out what the NPS has done remove prime fishing areas from access. Wake up America, the environmentalist have control of the Department of the Interior and will keep pushing until we have no rights at all. There are lies posted about the Hatteras 'sucess' for the efforts... BTW, I would think that the closing of your beach would be in violation of the American with Disabilities Act.

This comment was edited to remove potentially libelous statements.--Ed.

This is sad. That particular area of the Matanzas beach was by far the nicest place I've been to in the entire state of Florida. The entire experience of driving down the beach, around the inlet, parking by the water so you just step right out onto the beach, you could watch the sun set on the intracoastal side, watch all kinds of wild life from Birds to Manatees to Dolphins.
Now, from the car ramp to the inlet is about 1/2 mile or more I'm guessing... yea sure, you can park & walk, just like in New Jersey. I guess the NJ look is what St. John's county likes... New Florida...yuck.

I miss not being able to drive at Matanzas Inlet. I used to go there to unwind and get back to nature. Relax, listen to the water gently lap on the shore. It was the best place to get water for my aquarium. (50 miles away, but so worth it.) Maybe someday we can get back there...