North Carolina's two U.S. senators acknowledged April 26 the problem of lack of bi-partisan beach access at Cape Hatteras National Seashore by filing a bill that would roll back limits on off-road-vehicle driving and pedestrian access.

H.R. 4094 (The Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act) would overturn the National Park Service's final beach-access plan – activated in January 2012 after 5 years of study – and reinstate a previous Interim Management Strategy that would regulate motorized and pedestrian access at the seashore.

The Senate bill, announced by Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, would restore less restrictive rules implemented in 2007 by a judge's decision.



"Restricting ORV use on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore has a negative impact on local communities and the local economy," Burr said. "We must ensure that our state's residents have access to North Carolina's scenic treasures, and I am confident we can come to a compromise that allows people to have access while at the same time addressing any potential environmental concerns."



Hagan supported her Senatorial partner.



"While I fully support efforts to protect all of North Carolina's coastlines, I believe the final ORV rule issued by the Park Service in January 2012 did not strike the necessary balance between protecting the environment and the needs of the local community," she said. "As Dare County continues to recover from the damages caused by Hurricane Irene, it is critical that residents and visitors have access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore." 



Unfettered beach access at the national seashore existed for 60 years until June 2007. But a judge's ruling put driving and walking on the national seashore under stricter rules. As part of a final decision in January 2012 the NPS set up a first-ever beach-access vehicle fee schedule ($50 per week, $120 per year). Never before have fees to visit North Carolina's national seashore beaches been authorized.



H.R. 4094 mirrored a bill introduced a month earlier by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr.



Reaction was swift from the two environmental groups that hired the Southern Environmental Law Center to file suit against the NPS in 2006, ultimately resulting in the Interim Management Plan, approved in April 2007 by U.S. 4th District Court Judge Terrence Boyle of Raleigh.



"We can't be more disappointed in Senators Hagan and Burr's complete disregard of facts, sound science, federal laws, and years of public participation and constituents' comments by introducing a bill to overturn the National Park Service plan to manage driving on the beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore," a SELC news release noted, ironically, mirroring the complaints of ORV owners in January 2012.



"In the four years under temporary safeguards and ORV restrictions to manage beach driving until this plan was adopted, visitation to the seashore and tourism revenue increased and nesting birds and sea turtles began to recover from significant losses."



However, OBX residents and business disagree, saying that businesses have suffered and shorebirds have not made dramatic leaps in numbers because so few birds visit the area. Last year observers counted 16 piping plovers along the entire 67-mile length of the seashore.



In addition to new fees, the NPS recently closed some beach areas to pedestrians as well as vehicles after threatened birds - mainly piping plovers and American oystercatchers - began nesting at some beaches. Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife believe the beaches need to be closed for their protection. Opponents point to zero documented bird deaths at CAHA caused by ORVs – except for plover chicks crushed by NPS vehicles.



Opponents of the NPS's most-recent restrictive rules pointed out that they followed park regulations – even before the Interim Management Plan existed – cooperated with NPS, had special work days to bag and remove refuse left on the ground by careless visitors and obeyed NPS driving restrictions. In return, they were granted more-lenient access to favorite fishing spots such as Oregon Inlet, Cape Point and south Ocracoke Island. Yet the good will and works by ORV users didn't stop environmentalists from suing NPS and ultimately receiving a more-favorable decision from Boyle.



Interestingly, the Interim Plan was criticized by both ORV users and environmentalists when it went into effect June 13, 2007.



SELC also said that "a small minority" of beach users convinced Hagan and Burr to offer this bill. Yet opponents note that Defenders of Wildlife and Audubon actually are a minority, as most visitors to CAHA and 99 percent of the seashore's permanent and temporary residents despise the new ORV driving rules.



SELC also said a majority of beaches (28 of 67 miles) are "set aside as year-round ORV routes with, only 26 miles designated as year-round vehicle-free areas for pedestrians, families and wildlife. The remaining 13 miles of seashore are seasonally open to ORVs, but reserved for pedestrians during the peak tourism seasons."



That viewpoint ignores that the 13 miles, because of lack of human egress, are now populated by the birds and off limits to ORV and human access, basically from March through October.



SELC's news release also noted, "It's difficult to understand why Senators Hagan and Burr would allow the small percentage of seashore visitors who drive on beaches to dictate the management of a national resource that belongs to all Americans."



Previously, SELC emphasized the need to protect birds and turtles and didn't say that birders and protectionists outnumbered visitors, ORV users, local businesses, citizens and local governmental entities, all of whom oppose tougher beach-access restrictions.