Years of acrimony over how to regulate off-road vehicle use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore are, barring another lawsuit, nearing an end, as final rules governing ORVs on the seashore are set to take effect next week.
The plan meets both the National Park Service's legal requirement to adopt an ORV management plan at the seashore, and its mandates under the Endangered Species Act to protect endangered and threatened species, such as the piping plover and five species of sea turtles that might come ashore to nest.
“What in essence we tried to do is come up with a balanced plan that, based on the public feedback, provides ORV access to the most popular areas," seashore Superintendent Mike Murray said the other day. "But there’s also strong sentiment wanting some of these areas to be vehicle-free year-round.”
Under the seashore's adopted approach to ORV management, areas along the 70-odd miles of beach are either closed, seasonally open, or open year-round to ORV use; the Park Service intends to build new parking areas along Highway 12, as well as new access ramps to the beach, and; a new trail is to be built to allow pedestrians to walk down through the dunes to the beach.
The plan also provides for a "seasonal night-driving restriction ... established from 9 p.m. to 7 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 allows 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. The rules also outline vehicle requirements, permit requirements, nightly ORV restrictions, speed limits and more.
“The Park Service’s rules are a compromise that provides protections for both pedestrians and wildlife while still allowing responsible beach driving,” said Julie Youngman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center that forced the Park Service to develop the management plan with a lawsuit back in 2007.
That lawsuit spawned a cataclysmic collision between those who rely on ORVs to reach favored spots, land managers who by law must help endangered and threatened species, and Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, which brought the lawsuit through the Southern Environmental Law Center.
While the final rules give the seashore officials some flexibility to adjust buffer zones set up around nesting sea turtles and plovers and their hatchlings and fledglings, that flexibility only goes so far.
Under the rules set to take effect February 15:
* There will be a year-round designated ORV route on the east side of Cape Point;
* A year-round ORV route is provided for on South Point on Ocracoke Island;
* There's a seasonal ORV route on Bodie Island Spit between September 15 and March 14;
* Hatteras Inlet Spit on the southern end of Hatteras Island would be vehicle free on the beach;
* the North Ocracoke area also would be vehicle free year-round.
In areas with seasonal closures due to bird or turtle nesting, buffer zones around areas with piping plover chicks may be as great as 1,000 meters, a distance criticized by many in the ORV community. But Superintendent Murray said that zone was tied specifically to the chicks' possible movements.
“Based on scientific studies and recomendation on what the buffer distance should be, we have multiple species, and each species is a little different. The one buffer that seems to bug people the most is the 1,000-meter ORV buffer for piping plover chicks," he said. "And it comes right out of the piping plover recovery plan. One of the issues, until the consent decree, we never provided piping plover chicks nearly that much area. And we didn’t have very good chick survival, and we didn’t know how far they would move because it’s very hard to find them if they get run over or otherwise lost. It could be a predator or something else. And the recent years under the consent decree, with the 1,000-meter buffer, we do in fact see that they move significant distances."
Under the approved plan, the Park Service could alter those buffer zones if data collected during 5-year periods of monitoring justify a change, the superintendent said. The bottom line, though, is the Park Service's mission to manage foremost for conservation of resources, and then for recreational enjoyment, he said.
"Based on Park Service policy, if there’s a conflict between conservation and use, conservation is to be predominant," Superintendent Murray said. "The way the plan is designed, we’ll stick with the 1,000-meter ORV buffer where there are piping plvoer chicks present, and then study it and see if the data will enable us to change that when we do the periodic reviews."
In the coming weeks, seashore officials will begin the scoping process to see what issues the public thinks should be addressed as efforts are made to identify where new parking areas and beach access ramps should be located.
Additionally, the Park Service will begin preliminary work on an alternative transportation plan.