A strong majority of businesses along Cape Hatteras National Seashore believe rules that restrict access of off-road vehicles and pedestrians for the benefit of nesting shorebirds and sea turtles will harm their operations.
But at the same time, uncertainties and outside factors that swirl around visitation to the national seashore make it hard to reach definitive conclusions on the severity of impacts to businesses there, note the authors of a survey conducted for seashore officials.
The survey (attached below) was conducted from June-September 2009, and dated August 2010, and so couldn't specifically ask businesses about the seashore's preferred alternative for managing ORV traffic that was released last fall.
The plan, expected to take effect late this year, calls for new parking areas along Highway 12 as well as new access ramps to the beach; a new trail for pedestrians to walk down through the dunes to the beach; 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,' and;" an "alternative transportation study and would encourage the establishment of a beach shuttle or water taxi."
Overall, the approved plan calls 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.
Without knowing of that specific plan, what the survey consultant, RTI International, of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, tried to do was select "the two action alternatives that represented opposite ends of the management spectrum for the alternatives under consideration at the time to serve as the basis for questions about the possible impact of the alternatives on revenue in the future relative to revenue in 2008. The descriptions of the alternatives captured the major features of the alternatives expected to have the biggest impact on visitation."
When asked to compare their business in 2008 vs. 2007, some respondents attributed declines in 2008 to the recession, high gas prices, changes in ferry schedules, beach closures to protect wildlife, and uncertainties over beach access. At the same time, some pointed to an increase in business due to the economy (some visitors stayed closer to home for vacations), and higher prices or management changes.
But the general theme was that restricted seashore access would be bad for business.
Some business owners reported that they do not believe the recent decrease in revenue was caused by an economic downturn, because they normally do quite well during a recession by attracting beachgoers who would normally elect for a more expensive vacation. Others said that beach driving restrictions have resulted in a loss of business mainly by driving away daytrippers. Some Ocracoke businesses noted that the current compromise on Ocracoke Island is necessary for wildlife protection and acceptable for maintaining their business, but that any additional closures would cause problems.
Without the specifics that became known last fall with the seashore's selection of its preferred alternative, and with the country's ongoing economic malaise, it was difficult for those businesses surveyed to make hard predictions about their future. Still, among the conclusions reached by the survey:
* "The majority of businesses thought that all three alternatives described in the survey would result in decreased revenue compared to 2008. A smaller number expected no change or an increase."
* "The first alternative, under which all the spits and points were closed to ORV use year-round, was expected to have the biggest negative increase."
* "Fewer businesses felt comfortable providing a quantitative forecast of the expected impact of the alternatives on revenue given the uncertainties surrounding the cause of changes in revenue between 2007 and 2008, the impact of the alternative on visitation, and the year-to-year variation in weather and nesting patterns."
* "From the businesses providing quantitative forecasts: Businesses forecast median decreases of 0% to 25% in annual revenue compared to 2008 for the first alternative described (which closed the most miles of beach to ORVs year-round). For the second alternative (which involved no year-round closures), the median change in revenue compared to 2008 ranged from a decrease of 12% to no change. Closing the soundside
ramps generated median estimates of revenue loss ranging from no change to -4%."
But uncertainty stemming from changes in travel patterns and outside economic influences also was mentioned by the survey's authors in their conclusion.
In some cases, businesses said that visitors came in 2008 not knowing about the beach closures and did not return in 2009. However, some businesses reported that although business in the spring of 2009 was down, they were seeing increased bookings for the fall or expected business in the fall to increase. Some visitors may reschedule trips from the spring to the fall to visit areas likely to be closed in the spring and early summer. Because the business survey was conducted during the summer, businesses did not have information about revenue in the fall and winter of 2009.
Forecasting future revenue in response to management changes is necessarily uncertain. Some businesses worried that 2008 would not be typical of future years for reasons discussed above. Visitation in 2008 is also confounded by the economic recession and gas prices. Businesses that want to influence the debate over the alternatives have an incentive to exaggerate the expected impacts of more restrictive alternatives on their revenue. This possibility was recognized, and the survey included questions to probe for the reasoning behind answers to some questions. In addition, the economic analysis will use other data sources in addition to the business survey to create a range of possible future outcomes.
Some respondents were hesitant to give specific numbers on possible changes in revenue that could be attributed to ORV management actions because of the many other factors affecting the economy in the last few years, uncertainty about shorebird and turtle nesting patterns, and uncertainty about the long-term reactions of visitors to changes in visitor access to the Seashore. The ranges of possible impacts, which are large in some cases, reflect the uncertainty expressed by businesses and variation present in the survey data.