The Battle Over a North Carolina Beach Continues

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

One of the negotiators was Golder. "They stacked the committee with ORV interests," he reports. "People were screaming and yelling obscenities at us. The threats got bad enough that we asked to be seated so we didn't have our backs to the audience. People were picketing along the roads and standing at the entrances with all these hideous signs about how awful Audubon was. The ORV folks' position was not to give in on anything that reduced vehicle access."

Another negotiator, who requested anonymity, told me that his participation was "the worst thing he ever did," that the process was "extremely contentious," and that "the motorized faction was ugly, outrageous, and in your face." He's had to give up his passion, surf fishing, because he believes his life would be in danger if he set foot on the beach.

Negotiators who defended wildlife had nails thrown in their driveways, were refused service at restaurants, and were warned to look under their cars before starting them. Directions to their houses were posted on the Internet. Their photos and names were printed on "wanted" posters worn on T-shirts and hung in public places, including at least one post office (though without authorization). A typical poster read: "Wanted for the economic ruin of Hatteras Island. The man is one of the leaders of the beach ban. Consider him dangerous to your livelihoods and recreation."

On March 30, 2009, after 14 months, 11 committee meetings, and scores of subcommittee meetings and workshops, facilitators of negotiated rulemaking gave up. This was just as well because the Park Service was then able to depend more on advice of wildlife scientists for the final plan. It's hard to figure why, before the implosion of negotiated rulemaking, the agency felt constrained to ignore the advice of those scientists (many of whom it employs), seeking instead the advice of ORV operators who, for example, believe and publicly state that piping plovers are invasive exotics.


The seashore's enabling legislation requires that it be managed primarily as "primitive wilderness." But seashore leadership seems never to have grasped a central fact about wilderness--that it's for everyone but not everyone all at once. Otherwise, it dries up and blows away like an African waterhole rendered by elephants to dust.

Primitive wilderness was hardly what I encountered this past May in the vast areas still open to ORVs. Our first stop was South Beach, especially important to birds because of the rich food sources and excellent nesting habitat. Audubon had urged the Park Service to restrict parking to a back road and require visitors to walk the several hundred feet to the beach. Instead, the final plan allows motorists to drive and park on the intertidal zone. Along two miles of beach we counted two ruddy turnstones, a brown pelican, several dozen laughing gulls, and 348 ORVs, many parked so close together that doors could barely open.

Under the final plan, 28 of the seashore's 67 miles are designated for year-round vehicle use, while 26 miles are set aside for pedestrians and wildlife. Except during peak tourism season, ORVs have access to the remaining 13 miles. While small sections may be temporarily closed to allow birds and sea turtles to nest, motorized access will be enhanced by new ramps.

Compared to other national seashores this is extremely generous to off-road motorists. For example, the Cape Cod National Seashore occasionally permits ORVs on 8.5 of the 25 beach miles it manages for ORVs. But because of bird breeding and ocean conditions, it more frequently restricts them to much less and sometimes none. On Florida's Canaveral National Seashore, beach driving is forbidden.

Also under the final plan, ORV operators must, for the first time, buy permits--$50 for a week or $120 for a year. To hear it from the local access crowd this is extortion, but it's the norm at other seashores. The money will help fund enforcement and implementation.

Despite the vehicle invasion at South Beach and elsewhere, I saw wilderness on beaches open only to pedestrians and of course on the Atlantic, where kite surfers were going airborne over waves. Two hundred yards out big rollers from a storm far to the south reared up into breakers, white manes trailing in the wind. Churning sand painted near-shore waters multiple shades of yellow, green, turquoise, and blue; a fog of spindrift, silver in the noonday sun, hung up and down the beach for miles. It wasn't hard to see why Americans love the seashore or why the Park Service has had such a hard time keeping them from loving it to death.

The local mindset was written on vehicles registered in North Carolina, all with fishing-rod racks. The latest bumper sticker is a rendering of a fist clutching a tern with middle finger raised over the caption "Hey, Audubon, Identify This Bird." Larger renditions of this classy finger salutation were plastered on businesses and residences and, incredibly, a few feet from a school.

Virtually all the nastiness issues from fishermen who fish from ORVs and some Outer Banks residents. But most vehicles I saw on South Beach had Virginia plates. Few of the Virginians were fishing. Instead they were sunbathing, picnicking, tossing balls and Frisbees, digging in the sand, swimming, surfboarding, and kite surfing. This weekend was a high point in their year. Any advocate of the human race would warm quickly to them. Despite the binoculars hanging from our necks, they smiled and waved at us. The revelers weren't driving on the beach; they were just parked on it. They'd have been just as happy or happier if they'd been required to park on the road behind the dunes.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Cape Hatteras Natl. Seashore

The situation at CHNS involving ORVs and their miscreant operators is bizarre. It's a travesty when a few narrowly focused people believe that they can own a place that was set aside to protect an entire ecosystem for all visitors not just a perverse few. The last time we visited CHNS, the ORV people were so contentious and rude that I gave up fishing and left for a more amenable place two states away. From many of the comments I've heard from them, there is no amount of science based data that could change their misguided minds. They are misfits who need to go.

Cape Hatteras Natl. Seashore

It's a shame that a few individuals can try to disrupt and sabotage efforts to protect some of our ecological treasures so that they may pursue their narrow interests. The last time I visited CHNS, ORVs and their operators were so contentious that I gave up trying to fish and left for more peaceful and pristine locations two states away. Our National Seashores are created to protect ecosystems, not to favor a few who care nothing about nature and only about themselves.

Open all beaches

Orv do not hurt wildlife. If it wasn't for the fishing there would be no cape Hatteras. How do you people sleep at night knowing your hurting so many business by trying to do something so stupid by trying to close beaches. The Audubon are nothing but complete liars and fakes. I will continue to drive on the beach how I want and will not hurt and wildlife. I can't wait till the OBPA wins and anyone who even says the word Audubon will be kicked off the island.

Perhaps when those who use

Perhaps when those who use the beach this way (and perhaps born with less than normal sized reproductive organs) and feel they have some God given right to destroy everything in sight will eventually come to see their rights stop when their actions affect others negatively. This includes negatively affected wildlife.

Could you please type

Could you please type properly. If you think this issue is so important and that you "have the right" to drive on the beach, then you should act like a professional, then maybe others will actually take you seriously.


It's sort of ironic that they have a picture of toyota and toyota donated 1 million dollars to the Audubon Environazis. Think about that when you buy your next auto or truck.

keep beach bullies off the obx beach


keep beach bullies off the obx beach


Cape Hatteras

My husband, daughter and I have been going to the outer banks since the early 80's. We have gone for the untouched beauty, peace and wonderful wildlife. We have been greatly bothered by the huge vehicles that tear noisily and madly down the beach, leaving destruction in their paths. We have considered not returning.
We spend two weeks there yearly and patronize the seafood stores, bakeries, groceries and restaurants, adding about $2500/year to the Cape Hatteras economy. We also rent homes from locals, allowing them to continue to have these properties and keep them up.
I would hope that my daughter can return to enjoy the same unspoiled treasures with her children for years to come.

Audubon closes beaches and kills tourism

So you came in the 80s when vehicular access use was the highest and species closures were small. You marveled at the untouched beauty, peace and wildlife yet while people happily recreated at the favorite beach destinations via vehicle. The vehicles do not tear noisely down the beaches and there is no evidence whatsoever that vehicular access destroys anything. Your just regurgitating Audubon's false spin.

by Wheat
"Vehicular access to the beaches is an acceptable form of access at CHNSRA and almost every other National Seashore. Why Audubon wants vilify this form of access and make themselves look so ignorant is beyond me.
I am requoting a portion of a response to the Forbes copy of this article that sums up some of spin this:
The reality is, in spite of Mr. Williams assertions, is that the NPS cannot show that ORV use on the Seashore has caused any significant impact on either the wildlife or the resource. The assertion made by Mr Howard in discussing record sea turtle nesting from years ago relative to this years numbers, is correct. According to the biologists I have spoken to, Matthew Godfrey of NCWRC and Michelle Boguardus, NPS, if their science is correct, a record year of nesting had to have occured some 20-25 years ago. That was when NPS recorded the greatest number of ORV’s on the Seashore in history. There were no restrictions on beach driving in those years. The biologists will also tell you that only about 1% of hatchlings reach maturity and that 90% of the turtles that hatch here are males who never return to the beach. So, assuming the biologists are correct, and that the turtles come ashore to nest where they were born, that only 10% were female, that only 1% survive, and they nested 20-25 years ago which would have happened during the busiest ORV years, it’s safe to assume that ORV’s have little or no effect on nesting.
Mr. Williams wont tell you about nest numbers, or will, because they remain a fallacy. How can one brag about nesting success when NPS loses an average of 37% of the turtle nests on the Seashore every year? He claims that nesting success has improved dramatically but what he quotes are nest numbers, not fledged birds. Nor does he quote failed nests. In 2012 there were 22 piping plover nests on the Seashore, 88 chicks, but only 11 survived. Not because of ORV use, not because of storms either.
The reality is, Mr. Williams and his crew will distort the facts as they please and in the meantime extort thousands of your taxpayer dollars in an effort to advance an agenda that benefits neither humans or species."

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