A New Rule Balances Wildlife and Off-Road-Vehicle Use on a North Carolina Beach
“We feel the final rule was very much a compromise,” says Heather Starck, executive director of Audubon North Carolina. “It was not everything we hoped for in terms of protecting wildlife,” she adds, noting there are more miles devoted to ORV users than she thought were necessary.“The folks that use ORVs in Cape Hatteras are only about two percent of the people that visit the seashore.”
Still, the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance continues to fight the new regulations even though the majority of the 21,000 commenters on the final environmental impact statement were in favor of the restrictions. In the past the group successfully lobbied in favor of the interim plan on Cape Hatteras. Between June 2008 and January 2009 members of the North Carolina congressional delegation introduced three bills, two in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, to return to the more lenient management of ORVs under the Interim Strategy. None of those bills passed, but after the final rule was put in place, Representative Walter Jones presented one bill in the House, and Richard Burr, supported by Kay Hagan reintroduced another in the Senate. Both are designed to abolish the regulation and return to prior management measures under which protected species had declined.
Despite the previous bills’ failure to pass, Mike Daulton, Audubon vice president for government relations, is cautious. “As long as there’s legislation pending, the birds of Cape Hatteras are in danger,” he says.
Even if the bills don’t pass the House or Senate, the final ruling’s supporters have civil litigation to contend with.
The Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance also filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department alleging that the National Park Service failed to give ORV riders’ interests meaningful consideration. Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife joined the National Parks Conservation Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, in an effort to help defend the National Park Service’s regulation in the lawsuit. (The alliance declined to comment on Cape Hatteras for this article.)
“The case is basically posturing, utterly without merit,” explains Ted Williams, Audubon field editor. When Williams visited Cape Hatteras beaches in 2005 and 2006 he encountered the damage ORVs cause to bird breeding grounds (see “Beach Bums,” January-February 2007). The park service’s new rules, he says, will sustain imperiled species. But for the rules’ dissidents, human access, not species protection, is the issue.
“It’s sickening to drive down this island and see rope and signs saying no,” explains Carol Busbey, who owns the Natural Art Surf Shop on Hatteras Island in Buxton. Busbey has run the shop for more than 30 years, but since the draft interim plan was replaced,her business has lost a lot of weekend business. “They closed off a lot of places that were special for a lot of people,” Busbey says. One week, there were two piping plover nests out on the point, she says, and “they’ve got acres and acres of land closed.”
Commenters on Ted Williams’s Fly Rod & Reed blog also express their discontent. “It’s not just about ORVs,” wrote one. “One piping plover nest closes over 700 acres of beach to all. This is the kind of thing we’re fighting.” (More fervent comments contained obscenities and had to be edited by Williams.)
Williams’s response is that “when we talk about ‘fairness’ we need to consider all Americans for all time, not the immediate appetites of a few loud, greedy ORV operators.”
Although the conservation groups are hopeful that neither the bills nor the lawsuit will reverse the progress made, the attacks do distract the groups from determining if the new protections are effective, says Starck. Even more threatening is the potential result if the new rule is overturned, she says. Political camps opposed to wildlife conservation would see the success of these measures and attempt to reverse other rulings. “If that user group sees that it was overturned here, it could be a really dangerous precedent for wildlife in this country,” she says.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming story on Cape Hatteras written by Ted Williams.
*This story was updated on June 13, 2013, to reflect a factual change.