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.
The sea was flatter on the Pamlico Sound side, and most cars were parked in roadside lots. Employing two important pieces of outdoor equipment (their feet), anglers waded the flats and walked the beach. Kites of every color, some held on strings but most towing surfers, rose and dipped like daylilies in a gale. On the Atlantic I'd seen perhaps a dozen; here, in less dangerous water, there were hundreds. Kite surfing is increasingly popular on the Outer Banks, perhaps because beach traffic has been controlled. In fact, the sport may be replacing motorized fishing as the main driver of the local economy.
While sea turtles and birds are at last getting meaningful protection, they need more. Turtles (mostly threatened loggerheads but some endangered greens and leatherbacks) come ashore to lay eggs. Regulations should, but do not, require the Park Service to check for new turtle nests each morning before opening beaches to the public. The seashore is vital to piping plovers, federally threatened in their Atlantic range (from Newfoundland to North Carolina), where there are only about 2,000 pairs. And the seashore provides important breeding and/or feeding habitat for such troubled species as the black skimmer, short-billed dowitcher, Hudsonian godwit, marbled godwit, red knot, American oystercatcher, Wilson's plover, least tern, common tern, and the gull-billed tern (see "Hit-and-Run," below). There need to be tighter driving restrictions--not just where these birds breed but where they feed.
At this writing, 2012 nesting statistics for birds and sea turtles are unavailable. But here's what the consent decree accomplished, a trend that should continue under the final plan if it's allowed to stand. In the 2007 breeding season, the last under the interim plan, there were 212 colonial-waterbird nests on Cape Hatteras National Seashore; in 2011 there were 1,274. In 2007 breeding pairs of piping plovers numbered 6; in 2011 there were 15. Over the same period black skimmer nests increased from 0 to 99, least tern nests from 194 to 1,048, gull-billed tern nests from 0 to 15, common tern nests from 18 to 112, fledged oystercatcher chicks from 10 to 24, and sea turtle nests from 82 to 147.
In addition to restricting driving the Park Service has undertaken desperately needed control of nest-destroying predators such as red foxes and feral cats--both alien to the Outer Banks and proliferating on garbage, including fish parts left on the beach by motorized anglers. But the local ORV community, which has never shown interest in wildlife except as obstacles, is suddenly spewing animals-rights rhetoric. For instance, Warren Judge, who represented motorized access on the negotiated rulemaking committee, offered this in his testimony on the House Roadkill Bill: "People who love animals are shocked when they discover that the National Park Service has an ongoing program to trap and kill hundreds of mammals each year . . . to protect a few species of shorebirds. Sadly, none of the special-interest groups, who claim to defend wildlife, have raised their voice as advocates for the hundreds of mammals that have been systematically murdered."
In another effort to kill the final plan ORV defenders--organized under the Orwellian moniker Outer Banks Preservation Association--have filed a meritless and all-but-hopeless lawsuit against the Park Service. But even the earlier interim plan--which flung down and danced upon the advice of the agency's own wildlife experts--was anathema to the association.
Deficient as it was, the interim plan im- proved on what the Outer Banks Preservation Association had been happier with--no plan. During the consent-degree litigation Steven Harrison, who retired from the Park Service in 2007, outlined what went on during his tenure as the seashore's former chief of resource management: "There was a strong sense from my superiors that we would not and could not do more [to protect wildlife], and there were continual discussions about doing less, meaning opening areas to vehicle use. . . . It was very difficult for seashore staff . . . to protect the seashore's resources when almost all the seashore beaches were open to unlimited vehicle use." He went on to testify that his requests for timely beach closures to protect wildlife were routinely denied. And he recalled that when least tern chicks got run over the Fish and Wildlife Service opened a criminal investigation of the seashore, then declined to prosecute.
The Beach Roadkill Bill, which reads like it was written for and by the Outer Banks Preservation Association, is based on myriad untruths repeated so often they are believed by most locals and a coalition of national organizations. Stumping for the bill are the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation and the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society along with such otherwise environmentally responsible groups as the American Sportfishing Association, the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Coastal Conservation Association, and the International Game Fish Association.
Testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee, Warren Judge recycled perhaps the most brazen of these untruths, charging that the consent decree was "prepared by a few special-interest groups behind closed doors." But he chairs the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and both the county and the association had not only helped craft the consent decree but had promoted it. Then, as interveners in the court case, they'd signed it.