The National Park Service is holding a meeting in Hampton Thursday evening in order to get public input on a contentious plan to manage off-road vehicles and beach access along about 70 miles of shoreline in the Outer Banks, where many Triangle residents vacation.
According to federal law dating back to the late 1970s, the Park Service is required to have a management plan for off-road vehicles along Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A plan was devised at that time which allowed for relatively-free access to the beach and has been enforced by the park, but it was never made official.
In 2007, environmental groups sued the park for not having a plan and for violating various laws protecting wildlife. The courts ordered a temporary plan to protect wildlife while still allowing people and vehicles variable beach access. The park service in the meanwhile has to come up with a plan that balances protecting wildlife with the recreational access people enjoy, which drives the economy in the area.
After a group of about 30 stakeholders failed to reach an agreement on a plan, the park service took over and has compiled an 800-plus page document outlining the options for a plan it will need to put in place by the end of the year. There are a series of public meetings occurring this week, including one in Hampton, to get feedback on the park document from concerned residents, property owners and visitors before a final plan is chosen. A final plan will likely be approved by the end of the year.
The document, called the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Off-Road Vehicle Negotiated Rulemaking and Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, offers several different beach access options, but favors one that would allow off-road vehicles on about 30 miles of beach all year, would keep them off less than 20 miles, and would limit access to the remaining areas. Read the document and related links here http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?parkID=358&projectId=10641.
Many fishermen and local business people, as well as other locals who have enjoyed very open beach access until 2007, argue that the park’s current document is still too restrictive. According to Frank Folb, who owns Frank and Fran’s Tackle Shop in Avon, local businesses are already losing money when beach areas are closed. He’s also concerned that vehicles will need to start paying money in the future to drive on the beach, which could well cut into tourism in the area.
Right now, a court-ordered temporary plan “makes things worse than they’ve ever been,” Folb says. Some beach areas are closed to vehicles and visitors at certain times when animals are breeding or nesting.
Folb doesn’t think any of the suggestions in the new park service document are right for the community, and aren’t necessarily better than the temporary rules currently in place.
According to a statement by Defenders of Wildlife, one of the environmental groups involved in the 2007 lawsuit, previous open access to the beaches by vehicles threatened the piping plover, endangered sea turtles, and other species of water and shore birds.
The group argues as many as 2,200 vehicles could travel the beaches in a given day and “this increase in ORV use has coincided with a steady decline in the numbers and breeding success of numerous protected species of shorebirds and sea turtles.”
The group goes on the say, “beach driving has contributed to a 49 percent decline in American oystercatcher numbers at Cape Hatteras over the last decade… [and] also contributes to pollution in the area, the compaction, erosion and displacement of sand, and the degradation of the overall habitat.”
Many Triangle residents visit the Outer Banks or own property in the area. Williamsburg’s Keith Exton, who owns a beach house in Duck and also runs the visitor-oriented vacation website OBX.com https://www.obx.com/, says he would like to see fewer cars on the beach.
He says locals are pretty passionate about using their vehicles on the beach to get to prime fishing spots, and there isn’t lots of public parking near popular beach sites, “but for everyone else, it doesn’t help. I don’t want to see a truck there when I’m on the beach.” Exton says some people drive their vehicles too fast on the beach and parents need to be extra watchful of their kids.
Also, “sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand,” he says. “You drive over them, and they’re gone.”
According to National Park Service Superintendant Michael Murray right now, neither side seems too happy with the ideas the park service is suggesting.
Murray says local business owners have been reporting losses if an area of beach is closed near where their business is located, but he says it’s tough to capture the data to say for sure whether the stricter rules enforced on the beach over the last few years has hurt the tourism economy.
Thursday’s meeting will take place from 6 until 8 p.m. at the Holiday Inn and Conference Center on West Mercury Boulevard in Hampton. Copies of the document will be available at the meeting, and are also available online http://parkplanning.nps.gov/documentsOpenForReview.cfm?parkId=358&projectId=10641.