War Rages on Cape Hatteras
The Interior Department has pledged to put wildlife before recreation in our national parks, but on a North Carolina national seashore, it's letting off-road vehicles run amok, imperiling birds and people.
But the ORV crowd demanded the short bridge because it wanted to drive to Pea Island to fish, and it has the Interior Department's ear. In fact, the mountain came to Mohammad. Before David Smith resigned in disgrace as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks (after accepting a free bison hunt at an exotic-game preserve in Texas a month before the Interior Department designated Houston as an official port for importing exotic game), he journeyed to the Outer Banks to meet with ORV groups. Environmentalists and even the press failed to get an audience.
Then, on July 5, 2006, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced the short bridge was the best choice, thereby undercutting the National Environmental Policy Act (requiring that alternatives for such projects be evaluated objectively) and maybe violating the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, which requires that if the short bridge is to be built, the Fish and Wildlife Service must find it to be "compatible" with its mission. Clearly, the agency does not think it is, since until Kempthorne's pronouncement, it had been citing the dangers of the short bridge to wildlife and the potential of the long bridge for wildlife restoration. Now it is silent.
ORV drivers, on the other hand, are never silent, and the Park Service is terrified of them. For instance, after they publicly accused its biologists of concocting excuses for fencing off more beach by herding piping plovers west toward Cape Point (a physical impossibility), the seashore instructed field personnel to approach birds from the east. To comply, however, they had to disturb a large tern colony. The Park Service keeps bringing in new superintendents, hoping one will defuse the situation. In 2004 Superintendent Larry Belli was abruptly transferred after the ORV lobby complained about routine beach closings. Acting superintendent Phillip Francis took over in 2005. That same year Francis was replaced by acting superintendent Pat Reed. In December 2005 Reed was replaced by Mike Murray.
When I interviewed Francis and Murray at seashore headquarters in Manteo in 2005 and 2006, respectively, they impressed me as decent, intelligent bureaucrats who wanted to do the right thing. Francis, whom I had known when he was running Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had proven himself to be a champion of wildlife. And Murray was fresh from the deputy superintendent's job at the Cape Cod National Seashore, one of the best-run units in the National Park System. I asked Murray why piping plovers were doing so well in Massachusetts and how Cape Cod National Seashore superintendent George Price had dared to make the following announcement on June 24, 2006: "I could seek permission for a program that allows for a certain amount of [incidental] 'take.' I learned that 'take' means dead birds. I don't believe the people who support the Cape Cod National Seashore want the National Park Service to allow for 'take' when the species' survival remains threatened."
Murray's answer: "It's an interesting contrast. I think the history of the issue has evolved differently there. There's a large environmental lawsuit that reduced the amount of area [open to vehicles], a much longer history of more reduced area, and more established management. The birds are doing better in the northern part of their breeding range." Indeed they are, and they're also doing better south of Cape Hatteras--where, as in the north, ORVs don't run over chicks and eggs or flush adults from nests. For instance, the 3.7 miles of barrier beach on Lea-Hutaff Island, near Wilmington, North Carolina (managed by Audubon), had five successful piper nests in 2006 compared with one on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's 70 miles.
Was the seashore violating the Park Service's organic act by not leaving native ecosystems "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations"? Murray paused, then said: "We need to wait for the [Fish and Wildlife Service's] Biological Opinion to inform us about the treatment of listed species."
He didn't have to wait long. Three weeks later, on August 14, 2006--and in response to the seashore's pursuit of incidental take for piping plovers--the Fish and Wildlife Service released one of the most bizarre biological opinions in the history of the Endangered Species Act, in which it found that "the undeterminable level of incidental take [of piping plovers] is expected to be a proportion of all the abandoned and existing nests." In other words: It's okay for the seashore to let ORVs kill most of the birds--say, 99 percent--provided they don't kill them all. Same with sea turtles. The document had made sense before it was sent to the USFWS regional office in Atlanta for the "review process." Such is the administration's commitment to its alleged "new" park policy of favoring natural resources over recreation.
As for the ORV management plan required by law to have been implemented in 1972, the seashore hopes to have it ready by 2009. Toward this end it has embarked on what it calls "negotiated rule making," a process by which private "stakeholders" do the Park Service's job for it by promul-gating regulations for themselves. The seashore has spent the last year just trying to figure out who should sit at the table, and at this writing it's still figuring. "We've agreed to participate because they asked us," said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "But I really question whether the ORV crowd will accept any level of compromise. . . . There's not going to be much incentive for environmentalist involvement if this is just going to be a distraction from actions that the seashore should be taking."