In a move not totally unexpected, the National Park Service has been sued over its plan for managing off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Washington, D.C., by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, an arm of the Outer Banks Preservation Association, claims the seashore staff failed to fully consider proposals offered by the alliance that would meet their desires for ORV access to Cape Hatteras beaches while also protecting threatened and endangered species.
“The Park Service’s new ORV management plan and rules, if implemented, will have a devastating effect on our unique, local shore-oriented culture and economy,” said John Couch, the association's president. “The OBPA and CHAPA have fought to keep the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area beaches free and open to residents and visitors since 1977.
"OBPA and CHAPA continuously have maintained that reasonable ORV access and bird and turtle species protection are not mutually exclusive," he said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, the Park Service overlooked reasonable recommendations and information that OBPA and CHAPA put forth during the planning process that would have resulted in an ORV management plan and rules that both protect wildlife resources and ensure reasonable ORV access to and over the area’s beaches.”
One of the recommendations Mr. Couch's group has made was to have the seashore use a bulldozer to create new habitat for plovers away from Cape Point, a highly popular and productive fishing area near Buxton.
"What we're saying is why can't we have a partnership with the environmentalists? We can improve this habitat," he said last summer. "They (the Park Service) have yet to do anything to improve the habitat for the birds.”
But the suggestion didn't seem prudent to the Park Service.
"Should we go out and bulldoze ponds in different locations? You've got to recognize that it'd be adverse modification of piping plover habitat," Cape Hatteras Superintendent Mike Murray said last summer. "If the habitat is naturally occurring there, you can't go mess it up in order to ensure access and then try to spend millions to create habitat further west. It is where it is."
The management plan, rules for which are scheduled to take effect next Wednesday, February 15, was developed after years of acrimonious debate over how to protect species such as the piping plover and five species of sea turtles from disturbance during their nesting seasons on Cape Hatteras. The plan was designed to meet both the 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.
It was another lawsuit, brought in 2007 by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife over the lack of an ORV management plan, that forced the Park Service's hand to develop one.
Since 2008 the seashore has governed ORV use on the beaches under an interim plan approved as part of a consent decree reached in the wake of the lawsuit. Part of the interim plan allowed the Park Service to establish ORV buffers 1,000 meters wide to protect piping plover chicks; the buffer for pedestrians is 300 meters. Both buffers were retained in the management plan the Park Service wants to implement.
While Cape Hatteras Superintendent Murray tried to work with both sides in the matter to come up with a satisfactory ORV plan, one that would provide access and protect wildlife, that didn't go very well. For 18 months committees worked to find common ground, but couldn't.
“The committee worked really hard,” the superintendent said back in May 2010. “We had 11 formal meetings, which was 20 total meeting days. Every couple months there would be a two-day meeting. But we had seven subcommittees that worked on different parts of the plan. They had conference calls and subcommittee meetings and on and on and on.
“They made progress on stuff,” he went on, “but it kind of boiled down to, after all this effort, the parties on the committee were able to agree to the easy things, like speed limits, or vehicle requirements. They couldn’t agree to the hard things, like how are we going to manage ORV use in the real sensitive bird nesting areas?
“So, towards the end of the process, we created a special subcommittee, called the integration group - sort of three from each side and three sort of neutral parties - to try to work out the final recommendation for the committee to consider. And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t agree to anything.”
In their lawsuit, the ORV interests contend that they have "advocated the protection and preservation of seashore beaches within a framework of responsible and meaningful access to the ocean beaches and sound for all users, including pedestrians and properly licensed drivers and their vehicles."
But the plan scheduled to take effect next week, they claim in their lawsuit, was “foreordained from the time that NPS began its planning process." More so, the Park Service’s planning and environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act was plagued by a series of failures, the filing maintains.
Those failures, the group's press release states, include: a failure to give meaningful consideration to views, data, or information that were contrary to NPS’s desire to impose more severe restrictions on ORV access and use; a failure to look at reasonable alternatives, including smaller and more flexible buffer and closure areas; and a failure to properly assess impacts on the local economy.
The complaint asks the court to determine that NPS acted improperly and to prevent NPS from implementing its final ORV management plan and rules.