There is a growing battle on the coast of North Carolina where special interest groups look to close miles of shoreline for less than one dozen pairs of birds.
The National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service claiming that four wheel drive access has led to the destruction of habitats for birds of interest at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. The CHNSRA represents a stretch of barrier islands that span from the town of Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet, which is over seventy miles of coastline.
Traditionally, this area has been known for its pristine ocean waters that have been consistently ranked in the top five beaches throughout the world. Another aspect of CHNSRA is the fact that it holds one of the best surf fishing opportunities throughout the world. Here, anglers can catch fish, such as citation red drum and cobia, which normally require the use of boats in all other waters. However, this traditional past time has come under fire from special interest groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife and The National Audubon Society, as they claim that the use of four wheel drive vehicles on the seashore inhibits breeding and nesting of certain birds; mainly, the Piping Plover.
The Piping Plover is a migratory bird that ranges from Canada to Florida and has started using the coastline of North Carolina as a breeding ground. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the Piping Plover listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and requires that special attention be given to this particular avian species when breeding behavior and nesting are observed (www.fws.gov). Other birds also inhabit the North Carolina coastline although none are listed as threatened or endangered. It should also be noted that due to these few Piping Plovers, an estimated 60% of shoreline at the CHNSRA was closed to both four wheel drive and pedestrian access in the summer of 2009.
The lawsuit enforcing these closures is based upon a consent decree negotiated between environmental groups and NPS for four wheel drive use within the recreational area. There was a plan for CHNSRA created in 1978, and the park operated under this plan for almost thirty years although it was never officially registered with the federal government (www.nps.gov). Hence, in the mid 2000’s, The Audubon Society partnered with Defenders of Wildlife to bring suit against the NPS, which has resulted in a consent decree that has lead to the closure of miles of beach until NPS can come up with a complete plan. However, many do not consent to this decree at all.
As a result, these closures have cut off access to the main areas used by both visitors and fishermen (and women) of the park. Cape Point, one of the most popular areas of CHNSRA, was closed in the spring of 2008 and did not reopen until late in the fall. This has led many to wonder how two birds can constitute a closure of miles of coastline, as Cape Point is not the only area to experience this type of access issue.
CHNSRA allows access by four wheel drive to areas of the beach through the use of ramps, which are trails that lead from the main highway (Hwy. 12), to areas of beach that are undeveloped. Although the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife have stated that there are very few miles closed to four wheel drives or pedestrians, the closures erected near ramps have also closed the access ramps themselves. This leaves no way to access these points of the beach unless one walks through the dunes, which is sometimes illegal and levy’s a hefty fine for violations. This means that although there may be strands of sand that are open, there is no legal access to these areas, which basically means they are closed as well.
This is a growing concern for the residents of Cape Hatteras, as much of the economy depends on tourism from visitors and fishing. With a decrease in the amount of accessible shoreline, many have decided to re-think their annual trips to the seashore and vacation elsewhere. In a phone interview with Bob Eakes, owner of the Red Drum Tackle Shop in Buxton, North Carolina, he estimated that after the consent decree, their spring revenue dropped 40% in the ’08-’09 year, and is off by up to 50% during the present 2010 season. The effects of the closures are being felt by many who depend on these annual tourist dollars, and local businesses have been fighting this decree although they do not have unlimited coffers of money at their disposal.
On a final note, it should be stated that there have been no known occurrences of bird deaths attributed to four wheel drives in the park by its visitors or residents in the years that these birds have nested along CHNSRA. Also, the local residents and fishers regularly organize efforts for beach clean up and restoration projects when other environmental groups are nowhere to be found. Protection of our natural resources is important for future generations but certain actions by special interest groups may render some of the country’s greatest treasures off limits if they get their way. National Parks and recreational areas were created for use by all citizens and visitors of the United States, not just a select few.
Phone Interview with Bob Eakes