A diminutive shorebird and a string of villages both dependent on the same necklace of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina are being pinched in a precarious setting that demonstrates the folly of trying to control nature.
While the idea of a national seashore along the Outer Banks of North Carolina might have been a grand idea in the 1930s, before the advent of roads on the barrier islands of Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke, before sport utility vehicles, and before summer vacations sent millions of Americans to the beach, 21st-century realities are dealing a harsh blow to wildlife species and local communities alike.
In the landscape of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a landscape accustomed to being shoved around by the Atlantic Ocean, shrinking habitat for both the piping plover and for surf fishermen has generated a controversy for the National Park Service, one threatening to rival that which has swirled around snowmobiles and Yellowstone National Park for more than a decade.
While three species of sea turtles -- threatened green sea turtles, endangered leatherback sea turtles, and loggerhead turtles, which are proposed to be listed as endangered -- have come ashore to nest at Cape Hatteras, it is a tiny bird that seemingly casts the greatest shadow over the seashore’s management.
Piping plovers, grayish-white birds with a black neck band, yellow legs, and a distinctive chirp, are somewhat curious in their preference for nesting habitat. They make small depressions in the sand to lay eggs that blend in so well they can easily be overlooked and, unfortunately, easily crushed by feet and tires and available to predators. Unfortunately, for Cape Hatteras beach-goers, these birds nest from late spring through July, and restrictions imposed to protect the birds block some stretches of seashore from those who prefer to drive their vehicles on the beach.
No one -- not the National Park Service, not the environmental and conservation groups in the community, nor the off-road vehicle organizations -- denies that a plan is needed to manage off-road vehicle traffic on the seashore. But that’s about all they seem to agree on.
“Are we providing for the birds, or are we missing providing for the people who want to come down here and use it as a recreational area?” wonders John Couch, the president of the Outer Banks Preservation Association that supports more off-road vehicle use of the seashore than the Park Service proposes to allow.
To continue the Yellowstone analogy, imagine if the Old Faithful complex, Lake Village, Tower-Roosevelt, Grant Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, and West Thumb all were unincorporated communities surrounded by Yellowstone. Those communities, if they existed, would be just as deeply concerned about Yellowstone management decisions as those who live along Cape Hatteras are concerned about the national seashore’s management choices.
And like the Yellowstone snowmobile debate, which has raged for more than a decade at a cost to the Park Service of more than $10 million in environmental studies, the Cape Hatteras dispute, brought to a boil in 2007 when environmental groups sued the Park Service because it never formally developed an ORV management plan, won’t likely be settled when seashore officials deliver their management plan late this year.
“It’s clear that both sides are lined up, and we’re not going to be able to avoid completing the plan and regulation this time,” says Mike Murray, who upon his arrival at the seashore as its superintendent in 2005 was handed the mess. “I think it’s likely to result in litigation.”
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Conflicts don’t normally arise overnight, and the one at Cape Hatteras certainly didn’t. This one slowly evolved as more and more Americans came to enjoy beach vacations.
When World War II broke out, piping plover populations along the Atlantic coast were peaking and the national seashore was little more than an idea on paper. At war’s end, though, the birds and the seashore headed in different directions.
Cape Hatteras, which was officially established in 1953, soon became a name brand for summer vacations, an attraction that nurtured tiny villages along the Outer Banks with vacation rentals, grocery stores, restaurants, service stations, fishing, and surf-pounded beaches.
Piping plovers, though, lost more and more habitat up and down the Atlantic seaboard to development and recreational pressures and declined precipitously, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On January 10, 1986, the bird that blends in so well with its beach habitat was officially designed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Today it seems that more than a few Outer Bank residents would also describe themselves as threatened due to the conflict created by the seashore’s popularity and the bird’s need for beach-front habitat.
Those who envisioned the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the 1930s were in some cases ahead of their times. While the Wilderness Act was still three decades away from being signed into law, the seashore’s founders saw the seashore containing stretches of “pristine wilderness.” At the same time, the lack of paved roads along Cape Hatteras led those who wished to fish the surf to drive through the dunes and along the beaches. But in the early days, beach traffic was minimal compared to today’s numbers.
Down through the decades, more and more surf casters turned to their vehicles to reach prime fishing spots along the seashore, with Cape Point due south of Buxton and to the east of Frisco being one of the most popular. During the summer high season there are times when an estimated 400 vehicles are parked along a 1-mile stretch of the point, according to the Park Service.
It was just this sort of traffic levels that spurred Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society to sue the Park Service in 2007 for lacking an official ORV management plan -- something both President Nixon and then President Carter had directed be done for federal lands -- one that took the nesting shorebirds and sea turtles into consideration.
“You know, it’s not the plover alone. It’s the other nesting birds,” says Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina. “Audubon has had a presence in the region for 100 years, and when we really decided we had to do something, including the court case, it was because the numbers had reached lows that were below anything we could find on record.”
Mr. Canfield agrees with Mr. Couch and other ORVers that a lot of factors are behind the downfall of breeding plovers at Cape Hatteras.
“You can talk about predators, you can talk about weather. Well, we have to control all the 'controllables' we can,” he says. “We can’t control the weather. We can do something about predators, and the Park Service tries. But we certainly can control the people factor, so that’s what we’re also trying to do.”
One of the things that definitely can’t be controlled, however, is the nature of barrier islands and Atlantic hurricanes, storms that some say are becoming more potent as the climate changes.
Installing permanent structures on coastal barrier beachfronts such as Cape Hatteras amounts to a declaration of war on one of nature's most powerful processes. The hurricanes, nor'easters, and other great storms that thrash the coast pack vast amounts of energy. Coastal barriers and the tidal marshes behind them function as the mainland's first line of defense, absorbing the impact of ferocious winds and surging water.
Huge amounts of sand get pushed around (some of it moving offshore), new channels are cut by overwash, and in these and other ways the coastal barriers get rearranged. By destroying dunes and constructing beachfront structures -- including defenses such as rip-rap, seawalls, groins, and jetties -- developers work directly against these natural processes and place property and people at exceptional risk.
The National Park Service began to realize this in the 1970s when it decided to halt its longstanding practice of building up and maintaining sand dunes along Cape Hatteras. It was a practice that helped maintain North Carolina 12, which runs the length of the seashore and connects the villages, but one that also was forever at conflict with nature.
The man-made dunes, in effect, tried to create a landscape contrary to that of a barrier island, one that can shift with storms that move sands around. Not only do these dunes need constant maintenance to withstand the Atlantic Ocean, but they create steep drop-offs that have narrowed the seashore’s beaches in places and, in many cases, left behind small stretches of habitat that are favored both by the piping plover and many surf fishermen.
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A federal judge in 2008 approved a consent decree that required the Park Service to come up with an acceptable ORV management plan. Arguably before the ink dried on that order, the Park Service staff at Cape Hatteras found itself navigating treacherous waters in its role as referee, peacemaker, and rule-maker bound by the Endangered Species Act and the National Park Service Organic Act.
“Certainly, there have been instances of it getting ugly,” says Superintendent Murray, who has seen a lot of controversy in a Park Service career that has taken him through Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglades and Cape Cod National Seashore. “When we had our advisory committee, basically a federal advisory committee, some of the local environmental representatives got threats. I don’t know if they were death threats. Some of them got nails in their driveways, they were put on ‘Wanted’ posters all across the island with directions to their house, ‘This guy wants to shut down beach access, go let him know what you think.’
“We had to relocate meeting locations. We had been trying to meet at Hatteras Island, but we didn’t have any Park Service-controlled venues, and so we had demonstrations and unruly behavior and some reports of vandalism of members’ cars while there were in meetings,” the superintendent continues. “In our public hearings there’s certainly a lot of angry language.
“One of the newspaper articles said I was threatened. I don’t recall. There were so many angry statements I’m not sure I picked up on which one was threatening me. Certainly we receive hate mail, our employees are refused service on Hatteras, and the community has mixed feelings about it.
“They do nothing to stop it, but some community and ORV leaders express regret that it’s come to that.”
For a year in the lead-up to the agency’s draft ORV plan and accompanying environmental impact statement, a committee with representatives from both the environmental and ORV communities met regularly over the course of a year-and-a-half, but met with little success in finding compromise.
“The committee worked really hard,” points out Superintendent Murray. “We had 11 formal meetings, which was 20 total meeting days. Every couple months there would be a two-day meeting. But we had seven subcommittees that worked on different parts of the plan. They had conference calls and subcommittee meetings and on and on and on.
“They made progress on stuff,” he goes on, “but it kind of boiled down to, after all this effort, the parties on the committee were able to agree to the easy things, like speed limits, or vehicle requirements. They couldn’t agree to the hard things, like how are we going to manage ORV use in the real sensitive bird nesting areas?
“So, towards the end of the process, we created a special subcommittee, called the integration group - sort of three from each side and three sort of neutral parties - to try to work out the final recommendation for the committee to consider. And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t agree to anything.”
As a result, the seashore’s planning staff came up with a half-dozen alternatives that went into the DEIS, alternatives that ranged from no changes in management to the preferred alternative, which was culled from much of the committee’s work, and which has brought howls from both ORVers and environmentalists.
“We expected that nobody would like the preferred alternative, and it seems like it’s turning out to be true,” says Superintendent Murray.
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Indeed, neither the conservation groups nor the ORV organizations like the preferred alternative.
While the conservationists say the 16 miles of beach that would be permanently closed to ORV use is too little, the ORV groups say it’s too much.
Seashore officials, meanwhile, point out that at various times throughout the year more, and less, of the remaining 52 or so miles of beaches will be closed, or opened, depending on nesting seasons.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Kristen Brengel, director of legislative and government relations, believes too much is being made by ORV groups over the proposed closures. After all, she notes, beach closures along Cape Hatteras are nothing new to the national seashore as many of the seashore’s villages routinely close sections of beach to ORV traffic to accommodate pedestrian beach-goers.
“In terms of just the off-road vehicle use, there have been seasonal closures for a long time specifically to enhance tourism. The fact of the matter is is that Cape Hatteras and the villages and towns throughout it have been handling seasonal closures for a very long time,” Ms. Brengel says. “So to say that now, with the closures specifically for off-road vehicles use, they’re not used to it, I don’t think that that’s a true statement.
“I find it kind of disingenuous to say that they’re not used to this when they specifically do it to get tourism dollars during the summer. That’s their bread-and-butter,” she adds. “And to make it seem like a closure here and there to protect some turtle and bird nesting is such a concept that’s wildly out of sync with how things have been managed down there is incorrect. If they do it for people and sunbathers, why can’t they do it for birds and turtles when the Park Service is legally required to do the latter?”
Mr. Canfield at Audubon North Carolina also notes that relatively few of the seashore’s visitors want to drive on the beaches. In his group’s comments to the draft ORV plan it’s noted that, “A 2003 visitor survey at Cape Hatteras estimated that between 2.7 percent and 4 percent of all visits to the park included beach driving. Even positing significant error in the survey data, and that number is double the maximum reported, then we are still left with the estimate that under 10 percent of all visitors to the seashore choose to drive on the beach during their visits.”
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You can’t discuss the future of recreation and wildlife on Cape Hatteras National Seashore without citing numbers:
* 1,000 meters -- That’s the distance of a buffer zone surrounding plover nests with unfledged chicks that ORVs must honor; the buffer for pedestrians is 300 meters. The 1,000-meter buffer, notes Mr. Couch, “is bigger than the parking lot of the New Orleans Superdome.”
* ~70 and 16 -- Approximate miles of coastline within the seashore, and miles that would be closed year-round to ORV access, a number criticized as too low by environmental groups and two high by ORV interests.
* 2.2 million -- Approximate number of visitors to Cape Hatteras annually.
* $777.41 million -- Tourism spending recorded in Dare County in 2008, an increase of 1.9 percent from 2007.
Other numbers that raise eyebrows were produced by the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service when it analyzed piping plover habitat from Cape Lookout National Seashore north to Cape Cod National Seashore as part of its work on developing a recovery plan for the birds. The study looked at the quality of piping plover habitat across those seaside landscapes and assessed the potential number of birds it could support. Cape Hatteras, the agency said, had the potential to support 30 breeding pairs.
“Many of the seashores have met or exceeded that predicted potential,” notes Superintendent Murray. “Cape Hatteras is the only one that’s had significant declines since the late ‘80s. All the other areas have had significant improvements.”
According to the USFWS findings, whereas Cape Cod National Seashore had 15 breeding pairs in 1989, by 2007 they had 85; Fire Island National Seashore had three breeding pairs in 1992, and 25 in 2007; Breezy Point, part of Gateway National Recreation Area, had 14 pair in 1989 and 19 in 2007; Sandy Hook, another part of Gateway, had 19 pairs in 1989, and 30 in 2007; Assateague Island National Seashore had 20 pairs in 1989, 64 in 2007; Cape Lookout, just south of Cape Hatteras, had 34 pair in 1989, and 45 in 2007.
“Cape Hatteras in 1989 had 15 pair, 2007 we had six,” said Superintendent Murray. “And the six was an improvement. 20032, 2004, 2005 we had about two pair. So 2006 was the first under the interim (management) plan, it improved to six. It was six again in 2007. 2008, 2009 under the consent decree it increased to 11 in 2008, and then nine pair in 2009, so some improvement both under the interim strategy and then under bump in improvement under the consent decree.”
From his vantage point, Mr. Couch believes the answer for the comparatively poor plover production at Cape Hatteras is obvious to anyone who walks the seashore’s beaches.
“Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the unit area that we are in, represents a marginal area. It is a peripheral area of nesting and wintering birds. Right on the edge. So typically numbers that are within more of the center of a particular area are going to have greater numbers,” he said.
As for the better bird production at Cape Lookout, which is further south, he points out the lack of man-made infrastructure on that seashore.
“They didn’t have any man-made interference. They don’t have the dunes. All the dunes here are man-made. And typically our topography is just like their’s, except the CCC came back in 1933 under Roosevelt and built the dunes,” he said. “They don’t have that here. We don’t have those wash-over areas that plovers seem to like and feed on. Surf comes up and it rolls right back into the ocean.”
And while Cape Hatteras is more built-up than Cape Lookout, with eight villages dotting the seashore, and sees more human and vehicle traffic, Mr. Couch contends that “human interference, whatever it is, is less than 3 percent of what’s going on there (in terms of impacting plover production). By far it is predation and natural causes.”
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No doubt, a large part of the problem at Cape Hatteras is a lack of parking. While more than 2 million folks descend on the national seashore annually, finding a parking spot that’s not on the beach can be difficult if not impossible at times.
“There’s no public beach access parking in the villages. They didn’t think of it. They didn’t provide for it,” says Superintendent Murray. “And the seashore has about 1,000 parking spaces spread over 70 miles.”
During the 2007 season, he notes, the lack of parking led to 3,000-4,000 vehicles parking on the beaches.
“So, lack of parking is a big root cause to the dilemma we face today,” he says. “People have become dependent upon driving and parking on the beach.”
Over at the Outer Banks Preservation Association, Mr. Couch agrees there’s a great need for additional parking, a problem he says the Park Service has ignored.
“There’s just not that motivation and initiative out at the Park Service,” he said. “They can cry the money woes and stuff like that, but there is no champion of access in the Park Service these days. I think they give too much time and effort into bird restrictions and closing off areas.”
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While seashore officials say they’re trying to satisfy both sides in their management planning, they also point to the laws and regulations they have to follow in managing the seashore.
“We know, and certainly we’re hearing in our public comments loud and clear, that Cape Hatteras is important to the local economy,” says Superintendent Murray, but “We have got to remember the purpose of the parks as stated in the (National Park Service) Organic Act. You know, ‘provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and such means that will leave them unimpaired.’
“And there’s numerous lawsuits and case law and philosophical statements from great conservation leaders over the years that the rights of future generations, when it comes to parks, the rights of future generations are more important than the immediate desires of the present. Frederick Law Olmstead said that in 1865 regarding Yosemite, and that’s never more true than it is today,” the superintendent adds.
“And that’s the challenge, and we want parks to be relevant to people’s lives in this and future generations so they have to have the ability to experience them. ... Finding that balance -- and it’s not necessarily a perfect balance -- resource protection is to be predominant so that they’ll be available for future generations. That should be the basis that we make decisions.”