The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill authored by Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. that would relax beach-access restrictions on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The bill will now go to the U.S. Senate, where a committee has reported favorably on a companion version sponsored by Sens. Kay Hagen and Richard Burr. No vote has been scheduled for the Senate bill.
The House vote was 220-194, roughly along party lines, with six Republicans opposing it and six Democrats supporting it. Jones’ bill, which was combined with several other legislative actions to become HR 2954, the “Public Access and Lands Improvement Act” seeks to end “excessive restrictions on public access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore” that have damaged the area’s economy.
Jones’ bill sought to return management of the seashore to an “Interim Management Strategy” created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007. It is Jones’ second attempt to get relief for Outer Banks residents and businesses after a federal judge’s decree in 2008 restricted beach access at the seashore to protect a handful of shorebirds and sea turtle nests. Access to many OBX beaches, among them some favored fishing locations, has been shut down at the height of tourist and fishing seasons.
The decree was in response to suit filed by the N.C. Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, who didn’t feel the Interim Management Strategy protected shorebirds and sea turtles to the extent they desired.
“The last thing we need in eastern North Carolina is unnecessary government regulation stifling job creation and economic growth,” Jones said after the vote. “I’m grateful to my colleagues in the House for voting to approve this common-sense measure, which strikes the appropriate balance between protecting the species that live in the Cape Hatteras area and protecting the taxpayers’ right to access the recreational areas that they own. Now it is time for the Senate to act.”
Under Judge Terrence Boyle’s decree, the National Park Service now requires permits that cost $50 and $120 for one-week and annual beach-driving passes, and ORV drivers must attend a film about ORV use before a permit can be issued. In all, 13.2 miles of the seashore’s 64.07 total miles of beach are open to ORV use, according to Outer Banks Preservation Association records.
In addition, the National Park Service reported that, in order to protect shorebirds, its rangers trapped trapped and/or shot 138 raccoons, 67 opossums, 34 feral cats, six coyotes, two mink and one red fox in 2013. The NPS noted that seven piping plover chicked were fledged – hatched and raised to flying size – at the seashore, or one plover successfully raised for every 35.4 animals snared and shot.
This is the second time the House has approved a proposal from Jones to ease Cape Hatteras access restrictions. The House passed a similar bill in 2012 on which the Senate took no action.