The Battle Over a North Carolina Beach Continues

Photograph by Emiliano Granado
Photographs by Emiliano Granado and Walker Golder
Photograph by Emiliano Granado
Photograph by Emiliano Granado

The Battle Over a North Carolina Beach Continues

On Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a revolutionary management plan is finally putting embattled sea turtles and birds on near-equal footing with ORV drivers. But powerful interests are working hard to undo it.

By Ted Williams/Photography by Emiliano Granado
Published: September-October 2012

There's no fish-and-wildlife issue I've complained about more than the mismanagement of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on public land (see "Beach Bums," for example). But there I was on Memorial Day weekend 2012, tooling around in one on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the 67 miles of "Outer Banks" that seal Pamlico Sound and the coast of North Carolina from the Atlantic. What's more, I was being guided by two public enemies, at least of the local populace. Had I gone over to the dark side?

It depends what you believe to be important. My guides, two Audubon activists, had instructed me not to identify them because they're being threatened and harassed for their wildlife advocacy. As pariahs on the Outer Banks, they fear for their lives.

Observing shorebirds and waterbirds isn't easy when these barrier-beach islands are packed with tourists. But I was seeking something else--answers to how the National Park Service's new plan for managing beach driving was working and how the motorized-access lobby was responding.

When I visited the seashore in 2005 and 2006, I found it managed more for ORVs than for wildlife or the general public. Shorebirds, colonial waterbirds, and sea turtles were at historic lows and declining. Hatchlings and eggs were being crushed. Turtles were being lured away from the sea by headlights. Birds were being driven off breeding and feeding habitat. Deep tire ruts trapped chicks and impeded pedestrians. ORV traffic intimidated and endangered the public.

Now, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife, the Park Service is doing better. On February 15, 2012, the agency implemented its "final plan" for managing motorized access. While far from perfect, that plan is revolutionary in that it places birds, sea turtles, and pedestrians on nearly equal footing with ORVs.

But pushed by parochial interests, North Carolina lawmakers--Representative Walter Jones (R), Senator Richard Burr (R), and Senator Kay Hagan (D)--are moving to nix the plan and plunge the seashore back into the motorized chaos I encountered on my earlier visits. While the "Beach Roadkill Bill," as their legislation is called by its many critics, succeeded in the House, it may fail in the Senate. Now when tourists enter Outer Banks shops they're provided with laptops and asked to send Senate Democrats this message: "Audubon lies; the [bird] numbers are lies." A friend of mine overheard this exchange between two female shoppers: "I can't believe Audubon makes up such lies. Who would have thought that? So glad we know now."

I asked Walker Golder, Audubon North Carolina's deputy director, to assess the final plan. "It's okay, not great," he replied. "Provisions for sea turtles are pretty good. Night driving is prohibited during nesting season. The plan doesn't provide adequate protection for nonbreeding birds. Different species have separate needs. Red knots move through late in the season. Piping plovers move through early in the season. You can't just focus on breeding and ignore nonbreeding. And the plan doesn't consider how breeding habitats change on barrier beaches."

That said, Golder and the entire environmental community agree that the final plan is light years ahead of what preceded it--no plan at all till June 13, 2007 (in violation of a 1972 executive order by President Nixon requiring the Department of the Interior to complete a regulatory plan for ORVs within six months), and from then till April 29, 2008, a grossly inadequate "interim plan." So for 35 years the seashore had flouted the Endangered Species Act, and for 36 it had flouted its enabling legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Park Service's own "Organic Act," which directs the agency to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein . . . leave[ing] them unimpaired."

Having worked diligently to get a decent interim plan, Audubon and Defenders were left with no option other than to sue. On April 30, 2008, they won a consent decree (a legally binding agreement signed by plaintiffs and defendants and enforced by the court) that provided the first significant protections for birds and sea turtles as well as a blueprint for the final plan. 

 

Meanwhile, the park service was attempting a "negotiated rulemaking," bringing in the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution. The idea was to get the ORV and environmental communities to engage in rational discourse and compromise on regulations. Twenty-eight negotiators were selected. The four from state and federal governments said little. Of the remainder, 17 represented motorized access; seven, wildlife-pedestrian interests.

The facilitators directed negotiators to "commit to the principles of decency, civility, and tolerance," proscribed "personal attacks, name calling, and other such negative behaviors," and cheerily predicted that "the negotiated rulemaking process should not delay either the notice or the final regulation."

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

This sucks.......niggas crazy

This sucks.......niggas crazy

As a conservationist and

As a conservationist and fisherman I've driven these beaches for 20+ years. NEVER have I seen a crushed bird. I've raised two fine daughters to be environmentally conscious, largely because they were able to experience vast & lonely beaches accessible only by orv. Unfortunately, the Audubon and like organizations have made snap decisions based on very little experience and horrible science. What is touted here as "powerful organizations" is actually comprised of environmentally conscious residents and visitors who are drawn to this area by the beauty and wildlife, but are being drained of resources in an attempt to counter the emotional reaction of extremists. Audubon, like the NRA, has become a danger to the purpose it once claimed to serve by defending extremist stances. There is middle ground here, as has been demonstrated in Rhode Island in which can result in species protection AND reasonable public use...including orv's. Beware readers, this author is misleading and dangerous to the entire effort, however subtle it may seem. Please don't take my word though, research this for yourself with an open mind and come to your own conclusion. I must also add, that as an orv advocate, I am horrified and ashamed by the language used and ignorant behavior of SOME, NOT ALL of those who have commented. You only weaken our position. If you cannot take up the cause intelligently, don't take it up at all...the issue is too important.

As a conservationist and

As a conservationist and fisherman I've driven these beaches for 20+ years. NEVER have I seen a crushed bird. I've raised two fine daughters to be environmentally conscious, largely because they were able to experience vast & lonely beaches accessible only by orv. Unfortunately, the Audubon and like organizations have made snap decisions based on very little experience and horrible science. What is touted here as "powerful organizations" is actually comprised of environmentally conscious residents and visitors who are drawn to this area by the beauty and wildlife, but are being drained of resources in an attempt to counter the emotional reaction of extremists. Audubon, like the NRA, has become a danger to the purpose it once claimed to serve by defending extremist stances. There is middle ground here, as has been demonstrated in Rhode Island in which can result in species protection AND reasonable public use...including orv's. Beware readers, this author is misleading and dangerous to the entire effort, however subtle it may seem. Please don't take my word though, research this for yourself with an open mind and come to your own conclusion. I must also add, that as an orv advocate, I am horrified and ashamed by the language used and ignorant behavior of SOME, NOT ALL of those who have commented. You only weaken our position. If you cannot take up the cause intelligently, don't take it up at all...the issue is too important.

Put your ORVs to rest, take

Put your ORVs to rest, take your shoes off and walk the beach and let all nature be. God decides who or what lives or dies. No animal should be killed unless you have no other means of food.

Put your ORVs to rest, take

Put your ORVs to rest, take your shoes off and walk the beach and let all nature be. God decides who or what lives or dies. No animal should be killed unless you have no other means of food.

Regarding the closure of

Regarding the closure of beaches, which is a much bigger issue than limiting beach driving:

How is it that you, the audubon society, gets to control a shared national resource? Is there any national resource that belongs to **** ALL *** of us, that the Audubon society don't feel entitled to control? What about my private property? How about all the other "just" causes out there? Shall we turn over all national resources to all such groups and let them shoot it out? How is it that the TAX PAYERS own the park, the TAX PAYERS pay to staff the park, and the TAX PAYERS pay to maintain the park, but the Audubon society thinks that they are entitled to confiscate the park? Really, YOUR cause is THE just cause? Climb down off your pedestal.

Regarding driving on the beach: This simply denies access to the sections of beach that the Audubon Society doesn't confiscate on any given day. You guys argue that you leave us, gee, an average of 1/3 of our own beach available to us on any given day, but then you want to make sure we can't get to it either. Wow, the center of the universe revolves around you, doesn't it? (By the way, I've been to the Outer Banks many times before you guys made your land grab. I've never driven on the beach. But I had never been inconvenienced by those who did.)

Didn't your mom teach you to share?? This resource belong to us all. Even though you have been able to manipulate the law to enforce your position, it is still unethical. You have stolen an irreplaceable shared natural resource and deluded yourself that your theft is justified by your cause. Still, you are a thief. How many atrocities have been committed under the theory that my cause trumps the rights of other?

Protection may help the

Protection may help the wildlife but Mother Nature can care for herself. You may think things are better but these bird and Turtle closures are destroying the fishing that people love to do so much. Sure you say we can walk on the beach but who the hell wants to walk several miles of beach. ORV privileges need to be loosened closing the beaches doesn't only drive people away it destroys businesses in that area because quit coming due to the bird enclosures.

How Many Birds and Turtles

How Many Birds and Turtles Get Killed When A Hurricane Comes Thru.
I Think you need to start telling mother nature that she needs A Permanent. To Send A Hurricane Thru. That's ok Just means My money
Won't be going to the beach no more. I hope the wildlife can pay their bills
I hope a hurricane come and washes it ALL Away. Long time vacationer sense 1969 but NO MORE!!!!!

you people are bullshit

you people are bullshit !!!!!!!!!!!

Why cant they relocate where

Why cant they relocate where the birds are?you cant go any farther east in the us then cape point,therefore the audobon society is closing a "major landmark" of the us..whats the point of keeping the point open if you can only stay in the water because its federal property,so if the audobon doesnt want to make things worse than open the most eastern part of the us again,theres no point of orv permits when theres only a fraction of the beach you can drive on,Fuck the birds anyways when you walk to the point you see dead birds anywhere..so they just need to relocate there sorry ass out of there

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