While the final paperwork has been signed concerning an off-road management plan at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the arduous task of formalizing a rule means the seashore will continue to operate next summer under a consent decree.
The National Park Service's Southeast Region office signed off Monday on the seashore's preferred alternative for managing ORV traffic in a way to protect bird and sea turtle species that receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. To mark the occasion, Tom Strickland, the assistant Interior secretary who oversees fish and wildlife and parks, congratulated the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for developing a plan that blends recreation and species protection.
"The work of these two agencies shows that the conservation of fish and wildlife and its habitat on the Outer Banks can be consistent with the transportation, recreation, and economic needs of local communities,” said Mr. Strickland in a statement. “I applaud the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service for their commitment to engaging the local communities, gathering ideas, and applying the best science to guide wise management decisions.”
An ORV management plan has been long in coming for Cape Hatteras, though it remains to be seen whether this plan will survive intact. In 2007 two conservation groups -- the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife -- sued the National Park Service for lacking an ORV management plan at Cape Hatteras, which offers nesting and breeding habitat for piping plovers (a threatened species) and five species of sea turtles (Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill are all listed as endangered species, while the loggerhead and green are listed as threatened in North Carolina).
Under a consent decree issued as a result of the lawsuit, and intended to guide ORV use on Cape Hatteras until a formal ORV plan could be adopted, tight regulations have governed ORV travel -- overnight driving was banned and temporary closures at times were enacted during breeding seasons.
The ORV plan that the seashore arrived at has been criticized as overkill by ORV and surf caster groups -- they argue 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 -- and termed lacking by conservationists, who say it fails to provide adequate year-round protections for wildlife.
Under the Record of Decision signed Monday, the one both sides have criticized, new parking areas will be built along Highway 12 as well as new access ramps to the beach, and a new trail will allow pedestrians to walk down through the dunes to the beach. It also provides for a "seasonal night-driving restriction ... established from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. during turtle nesting season, although areas with no turtle nests could open to night driving from September 16 through November 15." Additionally, it calls for an "alternative transportation study and would encourage the establishment of a beach shuttle or water taxi."
Overall, the approved plan will 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.
Whether this option will be challenged in court remains to be seen.
While the Record of Decision has been approved, much work remains before the ORV plan will actually be implemented at Cape Hatteras, according to seashore Superintendent Mike Murray.
The Record of Decision was needed before the seashore staff could draft a proposed rule, which in turn must be approved by both the Interior Department and Office of Management and Budget, the superintendent said Monday. Then draft rule then must be published in the Federal Register and go through a 60-day public comment period, he continued.
After the comment period closes, seashore staff must review the comments and, if necessary, tweak the draft proposed rule.
“The likelihood is that the proposed rule will be published in the first quarter of the new year," said Superintendent Murray. "The final rule is likely to be published sometime in the summer.”
Rather than change the management direction in mid-summer, seashore officials will wait until the fall before implementing the new ORV management plan.
"It would be challenging for everybody. It's kind of hard to switch horses in the middle of a busy season like that," Superintendent Murray said. “We’ll operate under the consent decree until then.”