Dispatches from the beachfront
June 9, 2008


The little oystercatchers that could

Resource closures on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have gotten more attention than ever this summer – from the media, on the message boards, and in conversations at local stores and post offices.

More of the beach is closed than ever before as a result of a consent decree, signed by a federal judge on April 30, that settled a lawsuit by environmental groups over ORV use on the seashore.

The National Park Service is required to put up buffers around nesting shorebirds, including the American oystercatcher, which is not defined as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

However, breeding and nesting oystercatchers on seashore beaches require a buffer of  150 meters (492 feet), which in some cases can close access to areas of the beach that are still open.  This is part of what has happened to close Cape Point.

Once the chicks have hatched, the buffer must be 200 meters (656 feet).

Then, you have the case of the little oystercatchers that could.

These oystercatchers did not get the word about nesting on the beach and the buffers that are available.

Instead it nested on the soundside of Hatteras Island, just east of Hatteras village, in the area known as Sandy Bay.

The nest was just 40 meters (131) feet off Highway 12, and the little oystercatchers that could sat on the nest as trucks and cars whipped by at 55 mph.

The consent decree stipulates that when nesting occurs in the “immediate vicinity of paved roads, parking lots, campgrounds, buildings, and other facilities, NPS retains the discretion to provide resource protections to the maximum extent possible while still allowing those sites to remain operational.”

In other words, the Park Service is not required to close down Highway 12 for nesting birds.

There was the prescribed buffer to the east and west of the nest, but only 40 meters – not the required 150 – to the south along the highway.

On May 30, the two-egg nest hatched, and a week later, the parents and two chicks are foraging close to the sound in the area.

“A lot of them are less disturbed by vehicles,” says Britta Muiznieks, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service.

“To some degree birds are more tolerant of people in their vehicles,” says Susan Cameron, waterbird biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She added that there are different levels of tolerance for vehicles for different species.

 Anyone who tried to stop along the highway to get a closer look at the little oystercatchers that could or to photograph them found that out.  The birds, seemingly tolerant of the traffic, flew off the nest if a pedestrian appeared.

Muiznieks said the couple who set up housekeeping at Sandy Bay is a new pair.  One of the oystercatchers is banded, and the Park Service knows that it nested last year north of Buxton.  There was a pair last year at Sandy Bay, and seashore biologists think that the other oystercatcher is one of the two there last year.

It takes oystercatcher chicks about 35 days to fledge, so these chicks have at least another four weeks to go, being raised on the island’s only and very busy highway.  They will have to learn not to forage or play in the traffic.

What are their chances?

“It will be a nice surprise if they fledge,” says Muiznieks.

No one is suggesting that oystercatchers need to nest next to a highway or that close to vehicles and people.  The little chicks are still in great danger from passing vehicles.

However, it does make you wonder what all the fuss about ORVs and expanded buffers is about.  After all, these birds were extremely tolerant of passing traffic but not of pedestrians. Yet, the consent decree allows pedestrians access, in some cases, that ORVs don’t have.

Anyway, as you drive along Highway 12 near Sandy Bay, slow down and help the chicks of the little oystercatchers that could fly away.

May 19, 2008

Dodging the bullet on Memorial Day weekend

The Memorial Day weekend on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was not the train wreck that many of us expected.  It was not the perfect storm of record high gas prices and unprecedented beaches closures coming together to create an unhappy weekend for visitors and islanders.

It was, well, like any other holiday weekend on Hatteras and Ocracoke.

The beaches were crowded, but only one area was overcrowded enough to restrict ORV access – and that was on Bodie Island for about an hour on Sunday afternoon.

Bodie Island spit was deserted.  Several folks commented to us that it was really strange to drive over the Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet and not see an ORV on the beach.  The area open to ORVs was north of the inlet, out of sight of the bridge.

The folks who came seemed pleased enough with access they had and had a good time on the beach.  “It was crowded but civil,” my neighbors said about Sunday afternoon on South Beach in Frisco with their visiting family.

One person who contacted The Island Free Press was unhappy with Memorial Day afternoon closures at Ramp 30 north of Avon.  According to the National Park Service, an area south of Ramp 30 was closed for American oystercatcher breeding behavior.  However, the Park Service says about 450 meters of the beach near Ramp 23 was re-opened on Monday because American oystercatchers abandoned the area.

The National Park Service says that there was no more rowdiness and no more violations than it sees on any holiday weekend – despite the new restrictions on beach access and night driving.

And business owners we surveyed were not doing cartwheels about weekend business, but most said they had done all right and were relieved that the disaster that many feared had not happened.

The weather helped.  Though it was rainy and cool on Saturday morning, the sun came out and the rest of the weekend was warm and sunny.

Click Here To View Slideshow of  Aerial Photos of Memorial Day on the Beaches

On the beaches

The National Park Service will have more information on vehicle counts and violations later in the week, but the initial indications are that there were fewer vehicles than last Memorial Day weekend and that violations were no more than usual.

Under the terms of a consent decree that was signed April 30 and that settled a lawsuit over ORV use on the seashore, closures to protect shorebirds are larger than ever before.  Large areas of the popular beaches at Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, Hatteras Inlet, and South Point of Ocracoke are closed to vehicles and to people.

So going into the weekend, it was apparent that more vehicles would be squeezed into smaller areas of the seashore beach.

Last year, the Park Service began “spot counts” of vehicles on the beaches.  The numbers don’t show a cumulative daily total, but rather reflect only the number on the beach at the time of the spot count.

There were fewer vehicles on the beach this year.

Take one example of Ramp 49 out to the South Beach in Frisco, a favorite of many visitors. There were several fewer miles of beach open to ORVs.  It was crowded, but everyone found a place to set up for the day, and at mid-afternoon there were some spaces available for additional vehicles.

Last year on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the spot count was 504 vehicles.  This year, it was 308 on Saturday.  That was probably influenced by the rainy and cool start to the day.  On Sunday last year, there were about the same number – 500 or so vehicles – and this year there were 429 on Sunday afternoon.

Jon Anglin, a law enforcement supervisor and the Park Service’s incident command supervisor on the team that is overseeing the special circumstances of reduced beach access on the seashore, said before the weekend that he wasn’t sure that the seashore could accommodate the usual volume of holiday visitors with the reduced space on the beach.

The Park Service made plans to close or reduce traffic on some beaches if  there were “unsafe” conditions, such as overcrowding.

“I think it, all in all, was a very successful weekend,” Anglin said on Memorial Day.  “In many ways, it’s been very calm…I am pleasantly surprised.”

The only area where overcrowding was an issue was at Bodie Island, where access to the spit was totally closed and vehicles were crowded into a much reduced area of the beach.  For about an hour on Sunday, access at Ramp 4 was reduced to “one on and one off.”  Vehicles were made to wait until a vehicle left the beach.

The Park Service has a full contingent of its own rangers on duty this week and 11 additional rangers from other parks as part of a “special events team.”

Anglin said there were the “normal issues” of a holiday weekend and lots of visitors – DUI charges, under-age drinking, and open containers in vehicles.  There were a “handful” of incidents of ORVs in closed areas, most notably at Ramps 23 and 27, and a few instances of pedestrians in resource protection areas.

Compliance with the ban on night driving, Anglin said, was “very good.”

There were some complaints about “police state” tactics by the Park Service.  Frank Folb of Frank and Fran’s tackle shop in Avon, said several folks who came into his store didn’t like the way they had been treated for not understanding access issues.  However, some other folks were complimentary of the park rangers, who they though were much more visible and fair.

Passing the Word

Jon Anglin attributed much of the weekend’s success to education about the new closures and ORV rules.

“A lot of people in the community were passing the word about the closures and about not violating them,” he said.

A small Army of volunteers manned the seashore ramps and planted themselves in front of island stores to hand out flyers with beach access information.

One of the volunteers was Tom Woods, owner of  Island Hide-A-Way Campground in Buxton.  He and his twin daughters and their cousin worked the parking lot at Food Lion on Sunday morning. He says he handed out 400 flyers by lunchtime to visitors and that 95 percent of them were unaware of the new restrictions on beach access.  Woods went home to have lunch and then was back in the afternoon to hand out more flyers.

Karen Orzechowski, who lives in Maryland but was visiting her mother’s home in Frisco, and her daughters, Sally and Jeannie Jankovic handed out flyers at Ramp 49 in Frisco.

Printing of the flyers by the Save Our Beaches group was paid for mostly by donations, and many off-island regular visitors helped organize the events, get the printing done, and get permits from the Park Service to hand out the material. Many shops also printed out copies for their customers.

The Park Service did post a sign at ramps, noting that the folks passing out the flyers were “exercising their First Amendment Constitutional rights” and that the park  “neither sponsors nor endorses these activities.”

The flyer was informational, though there were statements that the environmental groups that filed the ORV lawsuit resulting in the consent decree would not agree with – such as the part that says there is no scientific basis for the closures and that the birds being protected are not endangered and that only the piping plover is listed as threatened.

At Cape Point

Cape Point, which many call the most famous surf fishing site on the East Coast, is almost totally shut down.  Ramp 43 to the beach near the Point is a cul-de-sac, and at nearby Ramp 44, there is only .2 of a mile of beach open to ORVs.

Cape Point is open but a closure for breeding or territorial behavior by American oystercatchers blocks the path of ORVs and pedestrians to the beloved fishing and recreation area.

A spot check on Sunday afternoon of that weekend found just 41 cars at Ramps 43 and 44, compared to about 426 last year from the ramps out to the Point – significant reduction.
Tackle shop owners agree that the visitors who did not come this weekend were the serious surf anglers who knew that the prime fishing areas at Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, Hatteras Inlet, and Ocracoke’s South Point were closed.

However, there were still some folks fishing the Point over the holiday.   They were required by the closures to walk in the water for a distance and then stay on the sand below another closure out to the Point. And, of course, if you want to fish, you have to haul your equipment with you.  It’s a serious hike.

About mid-day on Sunday, Danny Jones and his family from Cana, Va., were returning from their trip to the point.  Along with Jones were his brother, James, his wife, Tiffany, and his children Nathaniel and Faith.

Jones was pulling a cart with a cooler and other equipment.  His brother carried more supplies.  Nathaniel had a rod slung over his shoulder.  Tiffany had more rods over her shoulder, and Faith brought up the rear, wrapped in a towel.

Danny Jones said the family has been coming to Hatteras for about 10 years. They come about seven times a year and stay in a motel.

Jones said he keeps in touch with Dillon’s Corner tackle shop and knew of the closures, but he didn’t realize the extent until they arrived here on Thursday before the weekend.

“I was kind of shocked,” Jones said.

The Jones family had walked out to the Point to fish every day.

“The walk by itself isn’t bad,” Danny Jones said.  “It’s just the equipment that wears you out.”

They caught bluefish and skates on Sunday and had caught a big flounder on Saturday. And Faith had carried back “50 pound of conch shells.”  Or maybe they just felt that heavy. Jones said they would be back out to fish in the evening.

His wife was less enthusiastic.

“It’s a long walk,” Tiffany Jones said, “and, if you ask me it’s kind of pointless.”

Coming back from Cape Point right behind the Jones family were Pete and Robin Jorlett, who live in Newport News and have a trailer in a Buxton campground, which they visit periodically over the winter and where they spend most of the summer.  They have been coming since the 1970s, and are retired now. They knew about the beach access issues but will come to Hatteras anyway.

On that day, they didn’t catch any fish, but Robin picked up some nice shells.  They were philosophical about having to hike to their favorite spot on the beach.

“They (the environmental groups) don’t surprise me with what they do in the name of nature,” Pete said.  “It’s ridiculous and uncalled for.  Their press releases are just twisted facts…..They’re very powerful because they have so much money.”

Island Businesses

The final numbers aren’t in yet, but a survey of about a dozen businesses on Memorial Day, found most of them were satisfied, if not enthusiastic, about their holiday business.

Visitation this weekend was definitely down – looking at counts of vehicles on the beach, cars in Park Service access areas, traffic on the highway, and accounts from business owners.

But it was no where near what businesses feared would happen if high gas prices and beach closures combined to keep visitors away in droves.  That did not happen.

Tackle shops were down by the largest percentages because of the large closures of popular fishing areas.  Other business owners said they were okay about the weekend, especially considering that they feared that more visitors would stay away.

Some examples:

•    Frank Folb at Frank and Fran’s tackle shop in Avon said he thought it was a “good” weekend on Hatteras, even though he thinks there were fewer folks here and his business was down.  His gross profits, he said, were down 20 percent from last year’s holiday.  Sales, he said, were down 17 percent, and fishing licenses were down 31 percent.

•    Dave Hissey at Pelican’s Roost tackle shop at Teach’s Lair Marina in Hatteras village also reported a “good” weekend.  “A lot of people didn’t come,” Hissey said. “People who didn’t know (about the closures came), and those who did know didn’t come.” But he said there was an increase in boat traffic and sales for offshore bait and tackle.

•    Alan Sutton at Tradewinds Tackle on Ocracoke said many of their “good, long-term customers” didn’t come because of the beach closures.  “It was disappointing,” he said. However, he said Ocracoke was “packed,” and his shop did well selling bait and tackle to families and casual fishermen.

•    Bryan Perry, who owns Frisco Shopping Center and Frisco Rod and Gun, said he thinks there were not as many visitors on the island as on past Memorial Day weekends.  With stores located right near Ramp 49 in Frisco, Perry gets business from the Park Service’s Frisco Campground and folks heading out the Frisco Ramp and heading to Hatteras Inlet. He said his gasoline and grocery sales are his main indications and that gas was down about 30 percent and groceries about 20 to 25 percent. However, he wasn’t totally unhappy with his business on the holiday since he said offshore anglers spent money on bait and tackle.  He said he was amazed at the people “rolling in who hadn’t heard about closures.” 

•    Jane Metacarpa at the Sandbar and Grille in Buxton said her weekend business was about even with last year and she “was not complaining.”  Friday night she said was down, Saturday night was even, and Sunday night was up.

•    Beth Bailey of Risky Business Seafood in Avon and Hatteras said she was “quite pleased” with the weekend.  “It may have been a little bit under last year, but given gas prices and beach closures, I think it was a pretty good weekend,” she said.   She said on Memorial Day she had better numbers at the Avon store than last year.

•    Many of the motels and campgrounds were filled for the weekend.

Some business owners noted that they don’t think this year was a good gauge of the effect of beach closures, since so many visitors didn’t realize what was going on until they got here.  Next year, they said, will tell the story.

The Marine and  Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the traditional beginning of the summer tourist season for many of us, especially on Hatteras and Ocracoke.  However, the holiday was established to remember those who have lost their lives fighting for the country and who are serving today to protect our freedoms.

So, it is fitting that we end this column with how Hatteras Island welcomed Marine Sgt. Jamie Pugh on this weekend.

Pugh, 31, is a 12-year veteran of the Marines who grew up in Richmond and has been coming to Hatteras since he was a youngster.

He returned in February after a nine-month deployment to Iraq as a heavy equipment operator, stationed at Camp Lejeune, south of Hatteras.

“The last 45 days that I was in Iraq,” Pugh says, “the only computer sites I was on were about Hatteras.”

He checked out fishing reports, weather, and accommodations, looking forward to a Memorial Day fishing trip.

He and his wife, Lisa, and their children, Alyssa, 3, and Trinity, 2, planned to travel from their home in Wilmington to Hatteras on Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend and to go out to Cape Point to fish all night and return on Sunday.

Pugh said he knew little or nothing about the beach closures until he stopped for ice at 8:30 on Saturday night and a clerk told him that the beaches were now closed to ORVs after 10 p.m. By that time, most campgrounds were full, but someone put Pugh in touch with Tom Woods at Buxton’s Island Hide-A-Way Campground.

Woods had no space available, but he invited the Marine and his family to pitch a tent in his yard for as long as they wanted to stay.

Woods said he did it because the story of the Marine and his family without a place to go “tugged at my heart”

Woods wouldn’t accept any payment, and he said several other campers came to him and offered to pay the costs for the night’s stay for the Pugh family.

Jamie Pugh says his family had a great evening at the Buxton campground and headed to the beach north of Avon for a day of fishing.  The beach was crowded, he said, but the family had a good time.  He caught a few spot and croaker.

The Pugh family packed up Sunday evening to go home to Fayetteville.

The Marine was impressed with Hatteras hospitality.  He’s been invited to bring the family back for July 4 and says he intends to come.


May 19, 2008

Closures and Camaraderie

It was Tuesday, May 6, and Ken Cooper of Charlotte, N.C., was an unhappy visitor.  In fact, he was distraught.

On Monday, May 5, just five days after the consent decree was signed by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle, three popular areas were closed at the height of the spring fishing season – Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, and South Point on Ocracoke..

When the areas were closed that afternoon, Cooper and some of his friends were fishing at the Point when National Park Service rangers told them that they would have to leave.

“They weren’t ugly,” he said. “They just said that we had 10 minutes to leave the beach.”

Cooper, 59, said he has been visiting Hatteras since he was a boy.

“My dad brought me out here when I was a kid, just like his father brought him here.”

Now he said he comes to Hatteras to fish at Cape Point about six times a year. Each spring since 1972, he and 20 or more friends meet at Hatteras for several weeks of fishing.

“We’ve all watched each other grow old,” he said.

Some of his friends left early after Cape Point was closed.  Another group was due to arrive that night to get the bad news.

“I work 80 hours a week so I could come out here,” Cooper said, “and they do this….These people (environmental groups) who are doing this are totally selfish, thinking only of themselves.

“And we love the birds as much as they do,” Cooper added.

Cooper and his fishing companions had joined a group of local avid surf anglers who gathered along the roped-off area to commiserate and make a silent protest of sorts – their fishing rods, in sand spikes, were lined up along the closure.

The group started arriving first thing in the morning with a cooker in tow.  Steve Groves slow cooked the pork and chicken, which everyone, local or not, who joined the group was invited to enjoy.  Others had contributed baked beans and cole slaw and desserts.  A donation jar sat on the table for anyone who wanted to contribute to Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance for legal fees to keep the beaches open to ORVs.

Among them were Pat and Jim Weston of Avon.  Pat brought chocolate cake.

She was there she said because “this is my life.”

The couple bought a home on Hatteras in 1996, and have lived here full time since 1999.  They love surf fishing.

“This is our retirement.  This is our dream,” Pat said as she looked over the closed-off expanse of beach that blocked access to Cape Point.    

Will negotiated rulemaking survive?

On Thursday, May 8, members of the negotiated rulemaking committee and their alternates, who are working on a long-term rule for ORV use on the seashore, made a field trip to Cape Point to see the closures.

The committee had meetings May 8 and 9 in Nags Head. Despite the gray, windy, drizzly evening, several dozen members of the committee made the trip to Cape Point, and they were joined by some islanders and visitors who happened to be on the beach and wanted to know what the gathering of vehicles and people was about.

One of them was Ray Williams, 73, of Buxton who was out at Ramp 44 “just looking at the water” with his great-grandson, Nathaniel, who is 8.

“You want to remember this when you get older,” Williams told the boy. “They are taking the beach away from us.

“My dad told me,” Williams continued, “that one of these days, I’d see the beach closed, and it has come to pass.”

Seashore superintendent Mike Murray and biotechnician Doug McGill explained the closures and answered questions.  

Several committee members had large scopes or binoculars to view the birds and shared the views with some of the onlookers.

The environmental groups that brought the lawsuit over ORV access – Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society – and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which represented them in the legal action, are members of the negotiated rulemaking committee.

That fact rankles some of the beach access groups on the committee. They feel that the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit are not negotiating in good faith or not adhering to the ethical and conflict of interest requirements for committee members.

The groups and their SELC attorney say the criticism is unwarranted -- that the lawsuit targeted only the Park Service’s interim plan to protect wildlife until the committee negotiates a long-range rule for ORVs.  The lawsuit was necessary, they say, because the Park Service has neglected ORV rulemaking for too long and that populations of shorebirds and sea turtles are suffering in the meantime.

The ORV access groups counter that the environmental folks have already negotiated significant concessions in the consent decree, such as a night-time driving ban from May 1-Nov. 15, and, therefore, have little or no incentive to negotiate anything less at the table.

The lawsuit has caused significant tension since the negotiated rulemaking committee began its official meetings in January.  

Last week at a meeting with reporters, Murray confirmed that he had received requests from five different individuals to dismiss some or all of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit off the committee.

Although Murray is the designated federal official on the committee, he said that the decision to boot any committee members will be a “policy decision” that won’t be handled at his level.

Negotiated rulemaking committee members are appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Interior and decisions about committee membership will be made in consultation with the DOI ethics office and its lawyers, Murray said.

The committee is required by law to have a balanced membership that reflects all stakeholders in the beach access issue.  

“You can’t stack the deck in favor of one side or another,” he said.

Murray said the request to dismiss one or more of the environmental groups will be discussed by the DOI’s ethics officials and its lawyers. Any decision will be made by the highest levels in the department.

If one or all three of the environmental groups were to be dismissed from the committee, they would have to be replaced by other groups representing like interests.  Those new members would have to be vetted and appointed by the Department of Interior secretary, a process that could take up to six months.

And time is one thing that the negotiated rulemaking process does not have on its side.

Under the terms of the consent decree, the Park Service must complete its ORV management plan by Dec. 31, 2010, and publish the final Special Regulation by April 1, 2011.

Given that the committee has been moving along slower than a lumbering sea turtle on the beach, a six-month or more delay to replace committee members could be a fatal blow to the negotiation process.

Murray said last week that he hopes that the request to dismiss committee members will be settled by the next meeting, which will be June 18-19 at the Comfort Inn Oceanfront South in Nags Head.

Storms and Survival

Just a week after resource protection areas were established at Bodie Island, Cape Point, and South Point of Ocracoke, a coastal storm spinning around offshore sent heavy winds, big waves, and high tides toward the seashore.

Tidal flooding surged over beaches where colonial waterbirds and shorebirds were courting and scraping, which is apparently practice for setting up a household in a nice sandy neighborhood.

On Tuesday, May 13, at Cape Point, waves were breaking over the sandy beaches where just the week before a colony of least terns had staked out their territory. The nice, sandy area wasn’t nearly as welcoming as the shorebreak moved over it.

The photographs that accompany this news item were taken by Don Bowers on May 13 at Cape Point, both on the ground and in the air. They show overwash and closure signs taken down by the surf.

However, the storm did not bring an end to any of the recent beach closures.

The closure between Ramp 44 and the Point – and other areas where birds were exhibiting breeding behavior -- will stay closed for now.  The closure can be removed if the area is “abandoned,” which means no bird activity for two weeks.
If a nest is washed out, the area will remain closed for two to three weeks to see if the birds will re-nest.

According to the Park Service, 12 least tern nests were lost in the storm tide – six on Bodie Island and six at Cape Point.

Four American oystercatcher nests were lost plus one egg laid outside a nest.  Nine oystercatcher nests survived – including one north of Buxton, one at Cape Point, one on South Beach, one at Sandy Bay, one at Hatteras Inlet, and one on south Ocracoke.

All five piping plover nests survived the storm – three at Cape Point and two on the South Point of Ocracoke.  Also last week, breeding pairs of piping plovers were seen at Hatteras Inlet and Bodie Island.

Trouble for popular fishing program

The Cape Hatteras Anglers Club informed the National Park Service on May 15 that its "Take Me Fishing" volunteer members voted to suspend their participation in the program because of “excessive beach access restrictions.”
This program has been one of the most popular at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for many years. More than 1,500 youngsters participated last summer, according to an Anglers Club media release.
“The irreparable damage to the economy and livelihoods of the people of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands cannot be condoned by the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club,” President Larry Hardham said.  “We stand with all citizens who oppose restrictions on free and open beach access.”

“Regrettably, this is one of the problems we see in this transition period under the consent decree,” said Cyndy Holda, assistant to the superintendent and community liaison for the Park Service. “They are a long-standing partner, and we hope they will reconsider.”
Holda said the “Let’s Go Fishing” program will continue in some manner.  The program has already been listed in the “In the Parks” newspaper, which is printed and about to be distributed to visitor centers. The start may be delayed, she said, or it may not happen every week.

“The program is too valuable to the National Park Service to drop it,” Holda said. “They (the youngsters) are the future generation who will fish on the beach – whether by ORVs or by walking over the dunes.”

Night driving permits

Under the terms of the consent decree, driving on seashore beaches is prohibited from May 1 until Nov. 15.  From Sept 16 through Nov. 15, night driving will be allowed – by permit only.

Seashore superintendent Mike Murray said last week at a meeting with reporters that the permits will be ready by Sept. 15.  There will be no fee, and there will be no limit on the number of permits.

The reason for the permit, Murray said, is beach-driver education.

By Sept. 15, the bird nesting season has ended, but there are still sea turtle nests on the seashore.  Turtle hatchlings move toward brightness, which normally would be the bright, white breaking waves on the darker ocean.  However, the small turtles can be led astray by car headlights or even lights left on all night in oceanfront cottages.  (Visitors, please keep your outside lights off at night.  Do not leave them on all night.)

Drivers who apply for the permits will receive educational materials with basic information about such issues as not leaving headlights on and what kind of lighting to use if they are fishing at night. – flashlights with small beams and lanterns with low light levels.

“It will be a simple process,” Murray said, adding that the Park Service recognizes the importance of night fishing.

Can you get there from here?

Since areas of the beach were closed to ORVs and pedestrians on May 5, fishermen have stood along the rope closures and gazed longingly at their favorite fishing spots in the distance.

This is especially evident at Cape Point, where an area of the beach between Ramp 44 and the Point is closed.  There is another closure to the southwest of the Point.

The result is Cape Point is open but you can’t get there from the east or from the west.  And, of course, this causes a good deal of frustration with both locals and visitors during the spring fishing season.

Many have asked questions about getting to Cape Point, and other inaccessible but open areas, by boat or by walking in the water.

You can do this, the Park Service says. Its jurisdiction ends at the mean low water mark. But park officials advise that you don’t try it without some savvy about the local waters, knowledge of the closed areas, and some strength and fortitude.

Rob Alderman, and ORV access advocate who runs the Hatteras Island Fishing Militia Web site (www.fishmilitia.com)  and who created the cable television show, “Outer Banks Angler,” has kayaked and walked to the Point since the closures went into effect.

Boaters, he says, should be aware that the ocean currents near the Point can be treacherous.  And, he says, walking in the water is not “for the faint of heart.”  It can be a strenuous exercise.

“If you catch it at the wrong tide,” he says, “you could have a disaster if you end up walking in waist-deep water or more with currents and stepping in holes.”

Furthermore, the Park Service warns that you should embark on such a trip with good knowledge of the closure locations.  If you come ashore in a closed area – in a boat or on foot – you can expect to be ticketed for the violation, even if you are forced onto the shore by weather or currents.

If you are considering getting to the Point by boat or walking, you should be aware that there are three piping plover nests in the vicinity.  The eggs could be hatching soon, which would mean an immediate 1,000 meter closure (about 11 football fields).  That will probably close Cape Point to any access.


The superintendent reflects on the decree

At a meeting with reporters last week, seashore superintendent Mike Murray talked about the consent decree and how it differs from the interim management plan.

“Since the consent decree was signed,” he said, “it’s been challenging.”

There are many questions to be answered and the park is trying to get its operations up to speed.  Buffers around the areas where birds are breeding or nesting must be installed more quickly.  The buffers are larger, and the decree calls for more monitoring of the birds.

“Under the interim plan, we had more discretion,” Murray said.  “Under the consent decree, the buffers are non-discretionary.”

In other words, under the interim plan, park staff could, if they thought it was feasible, allow access around closed areas.  Under the consent decree, the buffers are the buffers, and that’s that.

“A downside to the consent decree,” Murray said, “is that it is unpredictable where the birds will be.  The impact is that access is unpredictable.”

Most all of the birds are here now, Murray said, but they are still moving around.

“Once they pick a spot, we may be able to open a few areas,” he said.  That might include instances in which the birds are using two areas for pre-nesting behavior.  

It’s still early in the nesting season, he said, and closures are happening quickly.

In mid to late July, Murray added, the trend will be reversed as more beaches are opened to ORVs and pedestrians.  The nesting season for shorebirds ends toward the end of August, which will open many areas now closed.

Murray acknowledged that the consent decree is more restrictive during the breeding season, but he noted that the alternative -- closing popular areas year-round – would have been even more unacceptable to many islanders and visitors.

He added that the Park Service is struggling with communications, since “everything happens more quickly.”  Park officials are working on maps that would be available online that would have up-to-date information on resource closures and areas that are open to ORVs and/or pedestrians.  Those maps could be available in about a week or so.

“One of the issues in the consent decree,” he said, “is that it’s an abrupt change in what we were doing, and, therefore, an abrupt change in access….It’s good for the birds, but tough for access.”

In the long-term ORV rule, Murray said, he wants access to be more predictable.

“This summer,” he said, “will be a challenging and unpredictable learning experience.”

And that goes for all of us – park staff, islanders, and visitors.  

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