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.