Another chapter -- and that's it, a chapter, not the end of the book -- in the at-times bitter struggle over how to manage off-road vehicles in Cape Hatteras National Seashore comes to an end Tuesday when seashore officials close the comment period on their draft management plan.
Once the comment period closes, seashore officials will read through all the comments received on their proposed plan and work on a final version.
Although President Nixon in the early 1970s directed parks to develop off-road management plans, for some reason none was ever adopted at Cape Hatteras. In recent years that's become a highly prominent issue, as the seashore is a nesting ground for both threatened piping plovers, threatened green sea turtles, and, occasionally, endangered leatherback sea turtles. Environmental groups have argued that the lack of an ORV management plan has endangered those populations' survival. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also recently announced that it will propose that loggerhead turtles, which nest at Cape Hatteras, be listed as endangered.)
Under a consent decree reached in 2008 to prevent a seashore-wide closure to ORVs, Cape Hatteras officials must produce a final environmental impact statement on their chosen plan, and have a Record of Decision signed off on it, by year's end. The court-approved consent decree also requires that a formal ORV management plan be in effect as of April 1, 2011.
Second, perhaps, only to the issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park when it comes to contentiousness, the ORV issue at Cape Hatteras has been lingering, and polarizing, for decades. While there was an attempt in the 1970s to formalize rules for ORV travel on the seashore, it was never signed off on by top Park Service officials for reasons that time seems to have erased.
Environmentalists have defended their call for strict controls on beach driving by arguing that protecting wildlife resources should trump recreationists’ demands for convenient ORV access to the beach. Beach-driving surf 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.
While a committee representing both ORV and environmental interests met regularly over a year's time, it was unable to produce an amicable consensus solution to the matter. As a result, seashore officials have produced a draft environmental impact statement that looks at five options, two of which essentially are "no action" proposals. Among the provisions of the seashore's preferred alternative are:
* A permit system for ORV access, although no permit limit would be instituted;
* Annual and short-term permits would be available;
* There would be a "carrying-capacity requirement (peak use limit) for all areas based on a physical space requirement of one vehicle per 20 linear feet for Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island Districts, except that 400 vehicles would be allowed within a 1-mile area centered on Cape Point";
* There would be a variety of access points for "both ORV and pedestrian users, including access to the spits and points, but often with controls or restrictions in place to limit impacts on sensitive resources. This means that some areas may be kept open to ORV users for longer periods of time by reopening some ORV corridors at the spits and points sooner
after shorebird breeding activity is completed" than would be allowed in other alternatives, "or by improving interdunal road and ORV ramp access";
* Increasing parking at pedestrian-access points leading to vehicle-free areas of the seashore, and;
* Seasonal and year-round ORV routes would be designated, although they still could be impacted by temporary closures "when protected-species breeding behavior warrants and/or if new habitat is created."
If you haven't already, you can read the 800-page draft environmental impact statement on the ORV plan, and comment on it, at this site.