A proposed plan governing off-road vehicle access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore while also offering wildlife protection has drawn initial opposition from the groups that forced the National Park Service to develop the strategy.
The preferred alternative -- Alternative F, one of six alternatives in the seashore's much-anticipated Final Environmental Impact Statement on off-road travel -- falls short of adequately protecting Cape Hatteras' wildlife, according to representatives for the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.
The plan, intended to guide ORV management on the 67-mile-long seashore for the coming 10-15 years, is the result of a lawsuit the two conservation groups brought against the Park Service in 2007 because there were no formal ORV guidelines in place and threatened species of sea turtles and shorebirds allegedly were endangered by the vehicles.
Tight regulations have governed ORV travel in recent years -- overnight driving was banned and temporary closures at times were enacted during breeding seasons, for example -- while seashore officials worked on an EIS outlining the management plan. Last year was a particularly successful year in terms of both sea turtle and piping plover reproduction, and the conservation groups cited the ORV restrictions when applauding the growing wildlife numbers.
Park Service planners came up short in translating that success to management guidelines in the EIS, the groups maintained.
“Numbers since 2008 demonstrate that under science-based wildlife management, nesting birds and turtles can rebound, tourism can thrive, and wildlife and people can share the beach at Cape Hatteras,” Walker Golder, acting executive director of Audubon North Carolina, said in a prepared statement in response to the seashore's preferred alternative, which was released Monday. “The Park Service’s plan currently falls short of providing adequate science-based, year-round protections for the seashore’s natural resources.”
Reaction to the proposal from ORV groups such as the Outer Banks Preservation Association and the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club was not immediately available.
But the debate over this plan, which is set to be finalized 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, likely is far from over, as the issue has been polarizing. 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.
Under Alternative F, new parking areas along Highway 12 would be built, as would new access ramps to the beach. Pedestrians also would see a new trail through the dunes down to the beach. Overall, the alternative would allow for 27.9 miles of year-round designated ORV routes on the seashore, 12.7 miles of seasonal routes, and 26.4 miles of vehicle-free miles.
Under Alternative D, the "environmentally preferred alternative," there would be 27.2 miles of ORV routes open year-round, no miles of seasonal routes, and 40.1 miles closed to vehicles year-round.
At the Southern Environmental Law Center, which handled the lawsuit for Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, representatives questioned the amount of access ORV drivers would have under the preferred alternative.
Reached at her office Tuesday evening, Julie Youngman, a senior attorney at the law center, said Alternative F's provisions failed to meet all of the recommendations made by United States Geological Survey researchers who examined the seashore's sea turtle and shorebird populations. For instance, she said, the preferred alternative does not block ORV access to the cape's spits and points, something the USGS recommended in its "moderate" recommendation and which her clients support.
"That’s just an example of how the current version of the preferred plan, while it does lots of things those (USGS) protocols recommended, it doesn’t do everything," she said.
The 108-page USGS study that contained the recommendations, published this past March, offered three levels of protection seashore officials might consider in drafting the ORV management plan.
• Under Option A, no recreation is permitted in any habitat used in the previous 10 years by the species in question. This eliminates the threat of direct mortality or disturbance due to recreation and greatly reduces indirect impacts, such as attraction of wild predators to the habitat of protected species and alteration of the beach profile by ORV traffic.
• Under Option B, for birds and plants, pedestrian recreation, but not ORV traffic, is permitted within a corridor in historically used habitat. For sea turtles, Option B closes all historically used habitats to night use by ORVs and optionally pedestrians, and closes segments of the habitat to all recreation. Option B reduces the risk of direct mortality and disturbance over current management practices but does not reduce indirect effects of recreation to the same extent as Option A.
• Under Option C, for birds and plants, ORV and pedestrian use is permitted in a corridor in historically used habitat. For sea turtles, night use of the habitat for recreation is permitted only in conjunction with user educational programs, and as in Option B, certain segments of beach remain closed. The risk of mortality, disturbance, and indirect effects of recreation are higher than under Option A or B, but still less than under current management practices.
Ms. Youngman said her clients did not favor shutting down all ORV travel along the national seashore, but believed more restrictions were required than what were proposed in Alternative F.
“If they’re going to ignore their own scientists' recommendations and allow driving there, they’re going to have to be very careful in managing that driving," the lawyer said. "We’re not necessarily saying (points and spits) must be closed, but if they’re going to be open to driving then that driving has to be very carefully managed. That’s one of the things that we’ll be looking very carefully to see.”
Since the Federal Register's listing of the Park Service's final selection is yet to come, Ms. Youngman said it would be premature to speculate whether her clients would want to legally challenge it. However, she said the successes noticed on the seashore this past summer indicate that a reasonable balance can be achieved in managing ORV use on Cape Hatteras.
"2010 was a record-setting year for sea turtles and piping plovers," she said. "The tourist industry had a record-setting year. We see that as a success. ... That shows that wildlife and tourism industry can thrive at the same time."