You are here

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Issues Final Rule Guiding Off-Road Vehicle Management


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.

(For a more detailed rundown on the rules and regulations, visit this page. To look at a map of seasonal closures, download this PDF.)

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.


Folks, while we certainly encourage discussion of this issue, and appreciate the fact that there are clear differences of opinion, let's try to be constructive and not resort to name calling and other disparaging comments.

You and your comments humor me.  I'm sure driving on the beaches has taken 1/2 a mile of real estate in the past 80 years.   Erosion never occurs on these beaches naturally?  I thought you may come up with something a little more educated like "global warming"?  You must have written the "footnotes" for Audubon, DoW, and others, .....

This comment was edited to remove a gratuitous remark.--Ed..

There was a point to your topical diversions? 

Anon3 and samsdad,  Thanks for confirming my point.

Well said Anon 3, but you can increase the oceanfront rentals to more than 5K and upwards of 12K.
I am not standing on the ORV realm only I know for a fact that most vehicle free areas are inaccessable to pedestrians until they build new access areas. I also know this will not happen any time soon because of the same rules that implemented the closures in the first place and also prevent a safe crossing from being built in place of a outdated bridge...
Name the reasons people attend the beaches of Cape Hatteras and then compare those to the new rules applied this month. Mine are listed below...
1) Peace and Quiet: Cape Hatteras was the one place I could go and relax without thousands of beach towels surrounding me. Now the ORV areas are going to be Overcrowded worse than before because they are all pushed into smaller areas.
2) Family Fun: I could bring my kids out to a secluded beach and relax without worries of them disrupting others. Now I will either have to trudge through 100+ degree sand for up to a 1/4 mile with two kids, a cooler, and towels just to get to the beach and god forbid if there were an emergency and I had to get them out asap!!!!
3) My Dog... Well unless I want to subject my animal to being strapped to a six foot leash the entire time he has made his last trip down.
There are millions of reasons why I love Cape Hatteras, but with added restrictions we will probably reduce our footprint there from 8+ trips a year to maybe one.
Please do not let people tell you this is only about ORV's... All people are being restricted from going to many of the areas of Cape Hatteras. If you do not believe me try walking out to Cape Point in the summer... Please let us know how much your ticket is.

Although some are overconfident that the economic impacts from the Final Rule on both Hatteras and Ocracoke islands will be minimal, the true verdict will not be known until a couple of summer seasons have passed. Don't dismiss the jury just yet.

What is demonstrably obvious is the economic impact to the average ORV user in the form of the permitting fees, which are nothing but a new tax on one user group that has been unfairly singled out to shoulder this financial burden alone.

While the upper crust "1%-ers" who can afford to rent oceanfront McMansions that sometimes exceed $2K a week rates will not have their access or their wallets greatly impacted, the weekend warrior "Yahoos" who can only afford to camp or stay non-oceanfront and access the beaches via ORV will find the federal government once again reaching into their already overtaxed pockets.

The  average blue collar, salt-of-the-earth people who would benefit the most from free and open access to HI beaches, the ones who this park was supposedly set aside for and who can likely afford it least, are being forced to pay extra for their vacations, or go elsewhere.

Many will be going elsewhere, as numerous blog posts have demonstrated. That this seems to be an intended consequence of the new rule is truly a travesty of social justice.

Anon at 11:47, you deride Anon at 10:15's use of a "crystal ball", but don't deride Samsdad for his use of a "crystal ball".  Interesting.  Seems to be a continuation of some to shout down those that don't agree with the very vocal ORV users on this issue.  I guess it's Ok to predict doom and gloom, but not Ok for others to think that things might work out alright.

The NPS finally woke up and saw what a mess
CHNS has evolved into. Conversation groups became the perfect excuse to
initiate some appearance of NPS management that remotely resembles other
national parks. 

Change in CHNS was long overdue. The size of
the Park’s ocean beaches have eroded to a fraction of the width they were in
1930's. The local infrastructure that is adjacent to the NPS ocean beach is
close to being built out. The shear number of ORVs that have been using the
beach was staggering at times, especially considering this is a National Park. At times there is  ORV traffic jams (gridlock) on the beaches. The amount of ORV
use today was clearly not what was intended or envisioned when the Park was
established.  The previous years of laissez-faire ORV management
changed the demographics and expectations of many visitors that vacation on Hatteras
and Ocracoke Islands and for retirees that moved here.  This has caused


The new ORV regs will be no more than a bump in
the economic picture that will smooth out in a couple of years (if that long).
The real economic concern is how the State and Feds are going to maintain the
highway/bridge/ferry (?)  link to
to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. State and local officials are using
conservation groups as a scapegoat because they finally realized the political plan
they came up with won’t work. If a solution to the bridge dilemma can be found,
now would be a perfect time to start a business up on the southern banks.
 There will be new opportunities for business for those not set in their
ways by how things were done in the past.


The Southern Environmental Law center and
Audubon are taking a lot of grief from special interest ORV beach user's
organization and supporters. I am grateful these organizations motivated the
NPS to manage the CHNS in accordance with the laws of the government of the
United States and to manage Cape Hatteras in a style that is similar to other
national parks.


The new ORV plan is incredibly generous to ORV
users. A good part of the designated vehicle free areas were either closed to
ORVs in the past or are in areas that have a good likelihood of being closed to
ORV use because of beach erosion. 
The areas the ORV users said were most important (and were also the most
scenic and dramatic) were all designated as ORV areas. All appropriate
recreational activities will be available to visitors that are willing to be
flexible. Visitors seeking wild and scenic beaches void of ORVs will still be


Instead of suing the Park maybe the ORV groups’
war chest of donations can be put to better use by building some of the new
infrastructure the park needs to better implement the plan.



Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments