Wings vs. Wingnuts
UPDATE: To those accessing this post from various and sundry fishing forums. Welcome. Comments are heavily moderated. Thank you and thanks for the traffic you’re sending my way.
Over the last decade or so, the issue regarding ORV access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been a, shall we say, contentious one. For years the National Park Service had avoided instituting a permanent off-road management plan, largely as a result of complaints by well-funded fishing and off-road lobbies in Washington worried about lack of access to popular fishing beaches. In the meantime, numbers of birds that nest on the spits of sand in late spring and summer have declined as much as 85% in the last 20 years. Piping Plovers and Least Terns are the federally protected species of most interest, but Common Terns, Gull-billed Terns, and American Oystercatchers have also experienced precipitous drops in nesting success and total numbers.
Two years ago the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife sued the NPS to force them to create and enforce a beach management plan. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this was precisely what many in the NPS had wanted. They needed a federal decree to spell out that they had the authority to create and enforce a plan that, in theory, would appeal to all users of the beach, both wildlife and the many factions of interested human parties. This consent decree went into effect in 2008 and closed off portions of the beach to ORV traffic during the three to four months of peak shorebird nesting. In my mind this is a reasonable compromise; the fisherman still get the majority of the beach (if not the best fishing spots) and the birds get a quiet shoreline where they can nest in relative peace.
There was a lot of heat, if not light, two summers ago when the consent decree was finally enacted, but I’d heard less this past summer. I had thought the worst of it was over, that the various interests had settled down into dealing with their new reality rather than fighting pointless battles. Apparently, this was too much to expect. As brought to the attention of the Carolina Birds community, there are those who would like to attempt to disrupt the upcoming Wings over Water Nature Festival by showing up to scheduled field trips with air horns, loud music and other weapons of mass distraction in an attempt to ruin the experience of the birders who make the trip to eastern Carolina and, presumably, dissuade them from visiting the area in the future. From the message on an unnamed blog:
I will go to every Bird Club Meeting that there is.. I will go to every Bird Watching Event on this Island.. I will bring Air Horns and Discharge them @ will while on the Birding Trips .. I will make their stay on this Island as un-welcome as possible.. I guess I will become The Bird Watcher, Watcher.. Their next Get together is Nov. 6 Cape Hatteras Light House parking lot 9 a.m. (Wings Over Water) It will be hosted by the Carolina Bird Club. I will be there with Bells on, or should I say Air Horns on..[sic]
Now I freely admit that this diatribe is mostly the rantings of a worked up individual presuming he’s preaching to the choir. Such blatant machismo tends to wither in the light of day when confronted with a crowd of birders with the law on their side, as harassing federally protected birds with air horns is a felony offense, not to mention disturbance of the peace. And it certainly seems odd that a Hatteras resident, a business owner, would voluntarily attempt to run off the good money brought in by the WOW festival from North Carolina and beyond while complaining that birders are having a detrimental effect on business. The irony is apparently beyond him, and last time I checked my money was just as spendable out there are anybody else’s. But his argument is, again, that the beach closures are having a negative effect on the Hatteras economy. This is an especially simplistic take in light of the facts.
In the summer of 2008, the first year the consent decree necessitating closures of several beaches was put in place, tourism was up. Statistics compiled by the visitors bureau showed a 7 percent rise in occupancy in June. This was, you may remember, the summer of $5 gasoline across the nation. So even with $5 gas, restrictions on beach driving, and a freaking wildfire just onshore, tourism was up in 2008 during the summer months, this according to the NPS visitation data. ORV advocates may rightly make the point that tourism is generally down in the Outer Banks from a peak in 2002, but the time of year where visitation has dropped the most is during the winter months, notably when all beaches are accessible by ORV. If beach closures are adversely affecting tourism in the area, wouldn’t it be most obvious during times when the beaches are actually closed?
Granted this past summer, 2009, has been a particularly low ebb. It cannot be denied that tourism is down on on the NC coast nearly 15%. However, given the near collapse of the American economy, nearly 10% unemployment nationwide (and higher in eastern NC, Pennsylvania and New Jersey from whence many OBX visitors come), and, most importantly, a 20% drop in tourism nationwide, the fact that the National Seashore, and Hatteras in particular, are doing 5% better than the national average cannot be discounted. That’s the important point that cannot be repeated enough, that Cape Hatteras National Seashore continues to outperform visitation expectations regardless of the status of the beach closures. This is why the NPS testified to Congress last year that the consent decree plan is superior to the plan in place before.
Which gets me to the frustrating point of all this jibber-jabber. Birders, by virtue of the conspicuous nature of our avocation, are being scapegoated here. The National Park Service has needed to take care of this situation a long time. That they needed a court order certainly makes a difficult situation even more difficult, but the National Seashore has been something of a political football throughout it’s entire history due to its unofficial status as a playground for DC elites. It has long operated under different rules than the rest of the protected seashores in the park system and without the lawsuit nothing would have changed. There are still some gray areas, but the consent decree has largely closed the gap and even if the fishermen and beach drivers don’t realize it, the NPS has made concessions to the ORV lobby to preserve access to most of the beach during breeding season when it would certainly be within their authority to shut the whole thing down. Besides, birders are barred from the beaches as well and those who have been caught by the NPS in protected areas have been dealt with no differently than any other individual in a restricted area. Yet we’ve not heard fishing and ORV groups take up their cause.
But rather than attempt to take responsibility for the acrimonious state of the issue, or perhaps hold their lobbyists accountable for taking such a hard-line uncompromising view of the situation, or even to argue for increased beach access for fisherman and birder foot traffic alike, a vocal minority have apparently decided to take their frustrations out on other users of the beach who are clearly “different”. On those with binoculars and scopes. On us. They already go out of their way to verbally abuse folks with binoculars on the beach. They already vandalize the homes and automobiles of bird-friendly individuals who live on the island. They already post signs intended specifically to antagonize us on their autos and businesses. Now they make plans to ruin the experience of attendees of the largest nature festival in the state, a long-time money maker, and then they complain that business is down. Frankly, I have absolutely no sympathy for business owners who go out of their way to offend a whole segment of their current and potential customer base and have the temerity to bemoan the fact that fewer of those customers are giving them money. If you can’t adapt to the changing paradigm, if you are more interested in chasing consumers away rather than attracting them, then perhaps you shouldn’t be in business. The free market is a bitch that way.
Despite that fact that Hatteras is a major east-coast pelagic hub and WOW is a very real indication of our market influence, we’re still not seen as a legitimate consumer base to be considered. It’s a shame that so long as the fishing community, and even then only the beach-fishing community as beach closures have no impact on charter or head-boat operations, is seen as the only real user of National Seashore resources, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, nothing will change. So wear your binoculars proudly. Let those with anti-birder paraphernalia on display know that such an adversarial tone towards visitors has economic consequences. In this economy, they shouldn’t be turning anyone away.
If you are able to do so, attend Wings Over Water. It’s a great festival that deserves a bigger national voice. I’m sadly unable to go this year, but the birding is phenomenal on the Outer Banks and we shouldn’t let infantile thugs determine who gets to enjoy the area. Cape Hatteras National Seashore should be managed for all those who use it, not just those with the loudest voices and the most lobbyists.
Or at the very least, it should be clear that birders have loud voices too.