Hold on, let me don my kevlar suit
There we go. Ok, then.
It’s spring again in North Carolina, which means the annual battle between the National Park Service and activist groups complaining about beach closures at Cape Hatteras National Seashore has once again reached its apex. This year, however, there’s the added wrinkle of the recent release by the NPS of a long awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement mandated by the federal court’s consent decree in 2008. If you need a cure for insomnia you can read the nearly 800 pages, but the relevant and highly charged parts of the plan involve Off-Road Vehicle use on the seashore. And if you predicted that the ORV activists have rallied to the generally reasonable-to-ORVs plan as the actions of a tyrannical government coming to take away their god-given right to drive over nesting shorebirds on every square inch of beachfront, well, come and pick up your cookie.
The truth of the matter is that despite the fact that the Draft EIS does advocate the permanent closure of a handful of beaches (16 miles of the 68 total miles protected by the NPS) and the continued seasonal closure of others in response to nesting shorebirds and turtles, it’s still overly deferential to ORV users. Under the NPS’s new plan, 40% of CHNS will be open to year-round ORV use (and all but the closed 16 miles during the winter months) despite that, according to Department of Interior studies, ORV users actually make up a small percentage of the annual visitation to the island. Cape Hatteras is enjoyed by more than 2 million people a year from shellers and birders to surfers and families looking to enjoy a day by the water. Yet even so the well-funded and strong-lung-ed ORV groups continue to demand and receive special treatment at the expense of every other beach-goer.
But if you think the fact that the NPS has gone out of their way to appeal to ORV interests would be appreciated by those same interests as an olive branch, you’d of course be mistaken. Over the past few weeks, the NPS has hosted several public meetings to rationally discuss the pros and cons of the EIS. To say the NPS has been slammed by opposition to the plan, concessions and all, would be an understatement. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to anything the NPS is proposing and I suspect you’d see the exact same response to any plan put forward by the NPS running the gamut from a complete blockade of the island to anything short of a free for all off-road rally. I get the impression that even if the NPS would submit the exact same non-plan that was in place before the consent decree you’d still hear a vocal faction whining about it. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to compromise in good faith.
The bottom line is that closures and restrictions for wildlife are standard operating procedure on every single NPS managed property in all 50 states. What the NPS is trying to accomplish here is nothing different from what they have done elsewhere. CHNS has been neglected by the NPS for some time, largely because of the difficulty in coming to an agreement on ORV use. I’m happy to see it come to some semblance of a close.
The NPS is currently seeking comments until May 11 on the proposed rules and is open to considering changes that would work in the bird’s favor. Local and national environmental groups who have been hard at work fighting for the birds that live there have created a handy site providing information on the plan. Among our requests.
Provide Equal Access for All Visitors – Under the National Park Service’s preferred plan, Alternative F, ORVs would be prohibited year round on only 16 of the 68 total miles of Seashore beach. This does not represent a fair balance for other users and wildlife. If ORV use is allowed within the park, at least half of the beach should be available year round for non-ORV users and wildlife. Combined with more walkways and better access facilities, this approach would provide balanced access for all visitors. Pedestrians and families could then more safely enjoy the Seashore, and wildlife could have a chance to rebound to its traditional numbers and diversity within the park.
Put Natural Resources First – Protection of the natural resources and wildlife of the Seashore should come first, and recreational use should be consistent with this protection. The preferred plan fails to set aside adequate areas that are free of ORV use year round for wildlife including breeding, migrating, and wintering species. Wildlife protection must be based on the best scientific information. Wildlife disturbance buffers in the preferred plan are minimums and should be increased if necessary to protect breeding birds and sea turtles.
Establish and Meet Clear Goals for Wildlife Recovery – A plan must include clear goals and milestones for wildlife recovery. Where there are management targets in the DEIS, they need more thorough vetting based on the potential of the Seashore to support wildlife rather than on its recent degraded abilities. Where birds, turtles, and plants are not coming back as planned, based on annual reviews, additional protective measures should be implemented until recovery goals are met. These goals, and adequate management to realize them, should be for migrating and wintering species as well as breeding ones.
This is where you come in. I’m asking you, my fellow birders, to please comment on the NPS’s plan. You’re more than welcome to support it as is, but I encourage you to add the comments suggested by NC Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, three organizations who have been at the forefront of working for a management plan that takes into account the wildlife at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. NC Audubon has made it very easy to do so.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not from Carolina. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never visited CHNS. In fact, I can guarantee that the majority of the ORV groups who have mobilized against this plan are not local and have never visited. All you have to do is care about protecting one of the most unique and beautiful wild places on the east coast by supporting the implementation of a plan that takes into account the wildlife and all the users of the seashore.
And I sincerely hope you do so.
Update: Thanks to those of you who clicked through! The SELC reported several thousand people commented on the EIS in favor of bird-friendly policies. It remains to be seen what the Park Service does, but I have to think that’s a pretty good indication that many people care about fair use of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.