A Senate committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would require the National Park Service to reassess how to manage off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a measure that conservation groups said was unnecessary and would lead to a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The measure, S.B. 486, was sponsored by U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and Richard Burr, a Republican, both of North Carolina. As initially introduced, the bill would have eliminated current Park Service safeguards for beach-nesting wildlife and pedestrian beachgoers to favor instead trucks on park beaches, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
In committee action Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden tweaked the measure to require the Park Service to study how wildlife protection measures might be modified to provide more vehicle access while still protecting wildlife and pedestrians.
“The existing wildlife protection measures are already based on the best available scientific information," said Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We will work to make sure the plan remains scientifically sound. By requiring the National Park Service to redo what it’s already done, the bill wastes taxpayer time and resources.”
According to nesting numbers from the National Park Service, 222 sea turtle nests were recorded in 2012, by far the most nests ever documented at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. At the same time, visitor gross occupancy on Hatteras Island during the bird and turtle nesting season months of April, June, July, and September 2012 was the highest on record, according to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
In February 2011, when the senators sponsored the legislation, Sen. Hagan said she did so to help the economy.
"Beach access is critical to the Dare County economy, and that is why I am working with Representative (Walter) Jones and Senator Burr to make sure federal regulations are not overly restrictive for the local community," Sen. Hagan said at the time. "The Hatteras community has experienced three summers with many beaches closed, and some local businesses may not survive another. I will continue working with the administration, my colleagues in Congress and all relevant stakeholders to balance appropriate beach access with important environmental protections."
But the conservation groups maintain things are fine without changes.
“The existing National Park Service plan is a win-win for the seashore,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “The plan restored wildlife to the seashore while increasing visitation and tourism. The vast majority of seashore visitors do not come to drive on the beaches. This bill seeks to fix something that isn’t broken."
Based on a public input and peer-reviewed science, the current National Park Service plan is the result of a public process agreed to by all parties—including Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance and local counties—concerned about beach driving on the national seashore.
“The National Park Service’s current regulation offers a balanced use of the seashore,” said Walker Golder of Audubon North Carolina. “The current safeguards--put in place after much stakeholder input, public discussion, and more than 21,000 public comments—allow for responsible off-road vehicle use, provide areas for people who want to safely enjoy the beach without the danger of trucks, and provide basic protection for birds, sea turtles and other wildlife. The bill sets a horrible precedent for the National Park Service.”
Eleven threatened piping plover chicks survived to fledge (able to fly) from nests laid on the seashore’s beaches during 2012. Before off-road vehicle management practices were implemented in April 2008, piping plover numbers within Cape Hatteras National Seashore declined to an all-time low of no chicks surviving to fledge in 2002 and 2004, the groups noted.
The National Park Service rule designates 61 percent of the seashore’s miles of beaches as year-round or seasonal ORV routes with only 39 percent designated as year-round vehicle-free areas for pedestrians, families, and wildlife. Some areas may be temporarily closed during nesting season to provide the essential protection necessary for birds and sea turtles to nest and raise their young.
Since President Nixon’s 1972 executive order, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been required by federal law to establish guidelines that manage off-road vehicles to minimize harm to the wildlife and other natural resources of the seashore. The order called for protocols in accordance with the best available science to minimize conflicts with other, non-vehicle-based uses of the seashore and to preserve the seashore for present and future generations. Forty-one years later, NPS’ rule is finally addressing these requirements, but bills like this one hinder the National Park Service’s work at Cape Hatteras.