| July 30, 2008
National Park Service does not support a return to interim plan
By IRENE NOLAN
A deputy director of the National Park Service told a U.S. Senate
subcommittee on Monday, July 30, that the Department of the Interior
does not support a bill to overturn a consent decree and reinstate the
interim strategy for ORV use on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Daniel L. Wenk, deputy director for operations for the National Park
Service, told the panel that the Department of the Interior must
balance protecting park resources and providing for recreation for the
“We believe,” he said, “that the consent decree will achieve this better than the interim plan.”
“A return to managing the Seashore under the Interim Management
Strategy,” Wenk said in his written comments, “would result
in a reduction in the size, frequency, and timing of the buffers
protecting federally and state-listed species, and a likely reduction
in the increase in nesting activity observed in 2008.”
The Subcommittee on National Parks of the Senate Committee on Energy
and Natural Resources scheduled the hearing to take testimony on about
a dozen different National Park Service bills.
One of them is S 3113, introduced on June 11 by Sens. Elizabeth Dole
and Richard Burr, both Republicans from North Carolina. A
companion bill, HR 6233, was introduced in the House of Representatives
by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, Jr., also a Republican.
The consent decree was signed on April 30 by U.S. District Court Judge
Terrence Boyle. It settled a lawsuit filed last fall by
environmental groups, which charged that the park’s interim
strategy did not go far enough to protect birds and turtles on the
seashore. The plaintiffs were the Defenders of Wildlife and National
Audubon Society, which were represented by the Southern Environmental
Law Center. Defendants included the National Park Service and
other federal entities. Dare and Hyde counties and the Cape
Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance were allowed by the judge to be
defendant/intervenors in the legal action.
The consent decree, signed by all parties to the lawsuit, is to
regulate ORV use on seashore beaches until a long-term plan is
completed through a negotiated rulemaking process by a committee of 30
stakeholders. The committee, appointed by the Secretary of the
Department of the Interior, has been meeting formally since
January. Under the consent decree, it must finish its work by
Dec. 31, 2010.
The effect of the consent decree has been to close down larger sections
of the beach than ever before during the spring and summer pre-nesting
and nesting seasons, especially at four popular recreational areas,
Bodie Island spit, Cape Point and South Beach, Hatteras Inlet, and
South Point on Ocracoke.
‘While we continue to implement the consent decree,”
Wenk’s written statement continued, “we are actively
working with all interested stakeholders in the development of the
regulation and plan, and we look forward to continuing to work with the
subcommittee, the local communities, and the involved stakeholders as
these processes move forward.”
The hearing was conducted by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii.
North Carolina’s Burr is the ranking minority member of the
Dole testified as a witness at the hearing, and Burr made comments
before the testimony started. Also, Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare
County Board of Commissioners, and Derb Carter, attorney for the
Southern Environmental Law Center, testified.
Burr said that the Park Service was “remiss” in not having
had a long-term ORV regulation, as it has been required to do since at
least 1972. However, he noted the work of the negotiated
rulemaking committee on a long-range plan.
The interim plan, Burr noted, was supported by the National Park
Service and a biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’ve not been thrown a usual curve ball here,” Burr
said of the consent decree. “We’ve been thrown a curve ball
that didn’t exist before now.”
The federal court, he said, got involved where it should not have gone.
Dole testified in support of reinstatement of the interim plan to
“allow the time and opportunity for all parties to work together
to find a long-term practical approach to off-road vehicle use”
at the seashore.
“I have heard from local officials and hundred of concern
constituents,” she said, “that the economic damage to the
area as a result of the consent decree issued last April would be
She added that high gas prices and the general state of the economy
have added to “hard times” for the North Carolina tourist
And Dole agreed with Burr that “managing the seashore through the
courts without allowing for public input, is the wrong way to come to a
resolution on this issue.”
Dare County’s Warren Judge began his testimony with a reference
to a letter from Conrad Wirth to the people of Dare County in 1952 when
he was director of the National Park Service.
Wirth said in his letter that “there will always be access to the
beach for people, whether they are local residents or visitors.”
“For decades,” Judge said, “the National Park Service
has balanced the rights of all Americans to access the seashore with
the need to protect the park’s resources. In April of this
year, environmental groups put an end to the National Park
Service’s successful and accepted management practices.”
Judge said the environmental groups were “special interest
groups” that have been “relentless in their pressure on the
Park and the management in their efforts to close the seashore.”
He said Hatteras Island business owners have seen declines of “as much as 50 percent” since April.
“Senators,” he said, “there are no factories in Dare
County; there are no corporate headquarters. However, we are as
American as you can be. We are hundreds of small business men and
women, from charter boat captains to commercial fishermen; from fishing
tackle stores to gift shops; from motels and cottages to rental homes;
from variety stores to eco-sports outlets. We go to work everyday
to provide for ourselves and to serve as hosts to millions of excited
vacationing visitors….Many eke out a living and are content to
do that for the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors that Hatteras Island
provides. Government should not take that away. Government should
do all that it can to preserve this way of life.”
The interim management plan, Judge said, did its job, and he said that
the natural resource closures it required were “understood and
accepted” by the people on the island.
“We, too, want to protect these resources,” he said,
“but do not believe it should be done without thought of the
He concluded with a plea to pass the bill to preserve “our culture, our history, our way of life.”
Judge was followed by the SELC’s Carter.
In an SELC press release and in testimony, Carter said that SB 3113
would “return Cape Hatteras to an inadequate management strategy
and undo the scientifically based and legally binding agreement that is
already seeing an increase in the number of birds and sea turtles at
the seashore this season.
He noted that fewer than three months after the consent decree was
signed nesting birds show “preliminary signs of recovery.”
Carter said that NPS statistics show that 27 miles of the beaches are
now open to ORVs and that no vehicles were denied access to beaches
this summer because of the closures – though people might not
have been able to get to their favorite beaches.
“There’s a lot of beach,” he said, “open for all users.”
He also talked about a rebound in bird and turtle nesting.
(This year 11 pairs of piping plovers fledged seven chicks for a
success rate of .64 chicks per breeding pair. Last year, six
pairs fledged four chicks for a slightly higher nesting success of .67
chicks per nesting pair. The average rate of fledged chicks per
breeding pair over the last 15 years on the seashore is .66. One
nest this season and a number of chicks were lost to predation, as has
been the case in the past.)
Carter also mentioned that there were currently 99 sea turtle nests so
far on the seashore, as opposed to a total of 82 last year.
(Whether that is related to the consent decree remains to be
seen. Sea turtles have been nesting earlier and seemingly in
large numbers on the entire North Carolina Coast, including Pea Island
National Wildlife Refuge, where there has been no beach driving for
Carter testified that in the 30 years he has been visiting and driving
the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, he has seen an
increase in visitors and ORVs and a decrease in wildlife.
He also noted that all parties signed off on the consent decree and
that “the Senate should honor this agreement and settlement."
The subcommittee chairman, Akaka, questioned Warren Judge after the
testimony about why the county agreed to the consent decree and now
supports having it overturned by legislation.
“We were not a player at the table,” Judge said of the
settlement talks, “until an April 4 hearing. Only after
that, were we invited to the table….We were not invited to
negotiate but for them to tell us.”
Judge says the intervenors were told to agree or all the beaches in question would be closed down year round.
“Yes,” he said, “we signed but under great
duress. We were not happy with it, but we felt it was the lesser
of two evils.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
You can visit The Senate Committee for Energy and National Resources
and see the webcast of the subcommittee hearing and read testimony from