For every action…
Last week I had the opportunity to chat a bit with a person who had been doing seasonal work on the Outer Banks for the National Park Service monitoring nesting shorebirds. I’ve written before about the ongoing battle between beach-drivers and the National Park Service, which heightened this past summer when extensive areas of popular fishing beaches were closed to accommodate the nesting Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and American Oystercatchers.
The tradition of driving on the beaches on the Outer Banks is admittedly a long one, and complicated by the fact that Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been a vacation spot for many in Washington, DC. This tradition of political elite holidays has led to a situation where federal regulations regarding endangered species have rarely been applied as strictly as they are elsewhere in the nation. There’s a real sense of entitlement to beach-driving out here, and its deep roots have always complicated efforts to do right by the birds and turtles.
I don’t think anyone that regularly reads this blog would argue that the NPS was wrong to close the beaches for the time that they did. The birds are endangered species, and the Park service was right to take action. Besides, they were within their rights to shut down the entire beachfront, and yet they did not. This was compromise, even if the beach-driving advocates refuse to admit as such, and it’s worth noting that independent sources indicate that tourism was up this year, notable not only in light of the beach closures but also the high fuel prices.
What it most frustrating in all of this however, and what came up in my short conversation with the aforementioned shorebird monitor, is the completely lack of outreach by the NPS in light of the negative reaction the initial beach closures engendered. Conservation efforts simply cannot succeed unless the community is on board with it, and this whole ordeal has sadly left the towns on Hatteras Island in shambles. Longtime neighbors distrust each other, birders are shunned, National Park employees are verbally harassed on a daily basis, and no one seems willing to talk to anyone else about a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Add to all this the fact that there are ever increasing signs of a fishery collapse in North Carolina, and the birds and organizations that support them are convenient boogie men for that. Fishermen argue that the decreased yield is a result of not having access to prime fishing locations, rather than an overall decrease in fish on the area.
From our perspective, it’s easy to place the blame for all of this on out-of-state beach-driving advocacy groups, and they have, without a doubt, stirred the pot here. But the core of the issue lies with the year-round residents on Hatteras Island. They are the ones that need to come together to show a united front, and it simply can’t be done without the National Park Service taking a proactive role. This is no small task, apparently veteran employees of the Park Service, frustrated with the lack of help from local and federal officials and tired of the constant harassment, have left, leaving behind new and less experienced employees with little to no interest in reaching out to the communities. This is nothing short of an utter failure and clearly an enormous missed opportunity.
Shockingly, the Park Service has turned down opportunities for outreach even when they have been put in front of them. I heard second-hand of an request by some citizens of Hatteras Island to be escorted by park officials to a sea turtle nest hatching to see what the fuss is about, a simple action that would go a long way towards giving the island residents an actual investment in the protection of the beach. The request was denied. In my opinion, this is the sort of thing the Park Service should be tripping over itself to provide, especially to school age children in the community. Something similar could be done for Tern colonies and shorebird nests, distantly of course, but close enough that people could see what’s going on, feel invested, and understand it, if not support it, in the long run. It’s a start at least, and every person you convince is a person who will fight with you for conservation efforts.
It’s relatively easy to close the beaches. But things are never as simple as they appear, of course, and beach closures are likely going to be a regular part of Outer Banks life for the near future. If the NPS doesn’t do a better job selling itself to the people on the island, and getting people on board with their policies, it’s not going to last. And the birds, turtles, and those of us who love them are going to end up permanently on the short end of that stick.