Three members of North Carolina's congressional delegation have asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to find a way to allow increased off-road vehicle and pedestrian access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
In a joint letter to the secretary, Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr along with Representative Walter Jones asked that the Park Service come up with management strategies that "maximize public access to the extent permissible under law."
The letter sent Tuesday is in response to an ORV management plan developed by seashore officials to protect nesting shorebirds and sea turtles from both ORVs and pedestrians on the seashore's beaches.
An ORV management plan has been long in coming for Cape Hatteras, though it remains to be seen whether the plan formally approved in December 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 approved 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.
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.
A survey of Cape Hatteras businesses taken before the final ORV plan was developed had many business owners predicting that restrictions would harm them. However, the report's authors noted at the time that 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.
In their letter (attached below), Sens. Hagan and Burr and Rep. Jones voiced concerns that the seashore's environmental analysis of the ORV plan "does not appear to reflect the input of local residents and businesses. However, this analysis will now serve as the basis for a management plan to implement the NPS findings."
"An overly restrictive ORV management plan will further imperil the economic vitality of Dare County families and businesses already struggling under current management practices," the politicians continued.
The three went on to note that North Carolinians long have worked to maintain the "natural landscape of our beaches" and might now be punished by an overly restrictive approach to public access at Cape Hatteras.
"With this in mind, and with the NPS working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to draft and review this rule, we urge you to provide as much public access to all Cape Hatteras beaches as possible," they wrote.
In her own comments released along with the letter, Sen. Hagan, a Democrat, noted that "(T)he Hatteras community has experienced three summers with many beaches closed, and some local businesses may not survive another."
Rep. Jones, a Republican, called the "public access restrictions in this proposal ... unreasonably excessive and far more than what is necessary for adequate resource protection. This is a jobs issue. If the administration is serious about job creation, it will revise this proposal."
In their letter to the Interior secretary, the three said they felt the Park Service could have reached a more equitable solution in dealing with threatened and endangered species at Cape Hatteras.
"... we ask that you provide additional access through the inclusion of ORV corridors that will allow access to all recreational areas open to ORV usage. Because Hatteras Island has an average width of only 1,500 feet, restrictions proposed by the NPS effectively close many areas in which there are no environmental concerns," they wrote. "For this reason, providing a means for the public to navigate through or around otherwise restricted areas to reach prime recreational opportunities will help to maximize responsible motorized access throughout the seashore.
"While we understand the unique challenges associated with managing ORV use at Cape Hatteras, we firmly believe the federal government is capable of providing a more appropriate balance between reasonable public access and environmental stewardship than what is contemplated under the Park Service analysis."
Sen. Hagan has cosponsored the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act, which would reinstate the Interim Management Plan for off-road vehicles at the seashore. Rep. Jones introduced a similar piece of legislation two years ago.