By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on March 20, 2012
The march was organized to protest beach closures, which are now a part of the National Park Service plan for managing off-road vehicle and pedestrian access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The controversy dates back to the Nixon Administration when the Department of Interior ordered all national parks with beach access to devise off-road vehicle plans.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore never did over the course of almost two decades, a situation that has caused fingers to be pointed at several players.
The issue was brought to a head four years ago during a negotiated regulatory meeting among some two-dozen “stakeholders.” In the midst of the so called “Neg-Reg” meetings, two parties — the Audubon Society and the Defenders of Wildlife –filed suit in federal court, hiring the services of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Judge Terrence Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a temporary order which significantly reduced access to the beach during the prime tourist and fishing season in the summer.
Both Dare and Hyde County officials signed on to the deal out of fear the judge would totally block access to all NPS beaches if they refused.
The “Neg-Reg” process grinded on and was never able to reach a consensus.
The Park Service entered new regulations into the Federal register on Feb. 15, 2012. The rules restrict significant portions of the beach from ORV and pedestrian use while introducing a fee of $50 a week or $120 annually for vehicles when they are able to access NPS beaches.
Park service officials state the new rules represent a fair compromise between environmental concerns and recreational users of the beaches. Local residents, business concerns and politicians claim the NPS came down heavy on the side of the environmental groups and used flawed science in determining the new access guidelines.
Today’s rally, while small, was infused with frustration over what Hatteras residents see as both a broken promise by the federal government to keep their beaches open for recreation and a threat to their livelihoods.
Unlike the northern beaches, access to most Hatteras beaches requires an ORV, and the local tourism industry is built around ORV use by beach-goers, anglers and surfers.
Kim Mosher, a Hatteras-based artist and designer, noted that while Audubon spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to close the beaches, they haven’t been present on the island since the order.
Mosher lamented the lack of compromise from a group such as Audubon, noting that the organization could have used its resources to develop university-based research groups and others to use the island as a place for study as well as to educate the public.
“How can the public learn about nature” when “access to nature is blocked”? she asked. A friend standing nearby said children will no longer be able to observe oyster skimmers and other birds working the beach.
An old timer who had been fishing the beach for over 70 years pointed out the lack of young people on weekends fishing in the surf. Now “they go to bars” for beer specials. “Before the new rules, the beaches would be filled with local young teens and young adults having a ball fishing.”
Bobby Eakes of Red Drum Tackle in Buxton questioned the science, especially since the observations and recommendations came from the U.S. Geological Survey.
“How many biologists do you think the U.S.G.S. has? I bet none.”
The marchers assembled at the Cape Point entrance and marched to the beach area down Lighthouse Road.