August 18, 2008

Catching up with seashore issues with the park superintendent

He gives us information, and we ask questions.  The topics include many issues at the seashore from resource management to off-road vehicle regulation, from management policies and negotiated rulemaking to maintenance projects.

The meetings are almost always lengthy – from an hour and a half to two hours.  However, the meeting this month, on Aug. 6, went on for 2 and 1/2 hours, an indication of the number of issues facing seashore officials this summer.

Here is a look at the issues that were covered.


Murray began our meeting with a question.

“How is resource management going?” he asked.

Then he answered his question.

“It’s been a very challenging summer, implementing the consent decree on short notice when we were geared up for the interim plan,” he said.

Overall, it’s been a good year for birds and turtles at the seashore.  

Piping plover nesting pairs were the highest since 1997, he said. Eleven pairs of piping plovers established 13 nests and fledged seven chicks. (Last year six pairs fledged four chicks.)

“Why has it been better this year?” Murray asked.  “It’s impossible to draw conclusions.  There are many variables involved.”

He pointed to more favorable weather, earlier nesting, fewer re-nesting attempts, and predator control.

“Because of the consent decree,” he said, “the birds could settle down earlier.”

However, he also added that all of the piping plover nests were in pre-nesting areas that had already existed under the interim plan.  And he said that more experienced biologists and monitors were able to find the nests earlier and implement “exclosures” to keep predators out of the nests.

American oystercatchers are also having a good summer.  

As of Aug. 6, Murray said that 23 pairs of oystercatchers had established 33 nests, and hatched 24 chicks. Fourteen chicks had fledged by that date and several more were expected to.(Three more chicks later fledged.) Last year, 22 pairs established 39 nests and fledged 11 chicks.

Murray said there were fewer nests this year, but more oystercatcher chicks fledged.  He noted that there was less nest failure and fewer storms this year.

And sea turtles have had a record year of nesting on the seashore.  There were 109 nests as of Aug. 18, the most since statistics have been kept.  Last year, there were 82 nests.  The ratio of nests to false crawls, when a turtle comes ashore but does not lay a nest, is also better this year.

Murray noted that sea turtles nest every two to three years, so the turtles nesting on the seashore this summer are not the same animals that were here last year. Also, sea turtle nesting is also up at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and along the entire North Carolina Coast.

The consent decree mandates a night driving ban from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. from May 1 until Sept. 15 – and night driving from Sept. 16-Nov. 15 by permit only.

“There are so many variables that it is difficult to factor out one thing,” Murray said. “Wildlife managers are much more concerned about the long-term trends.”

“Is the consent decree better for the resources?” Murray asked.  “We can’t draw any conclusions.”

Is the increased turtle nesting due to the night driving ban?

“We don’t know,” he said.

Murray noted that there were a high number of false crawls last year in an area of South Beach that was closed to vehicles.  There were about 24 false crawls and only three nests located.  This year that number is very different – five nests and three false crawls.

“We have to be very cautious about drawing any conclusions in the short term,” the superintendent said.


Murray noted that the seashore does not relocate turtle nests for recreational access.  Nests are relocated usually only if they are at or below the high tide line.  As of Aug. 6, 18 nests had been relocated.

Also, the consent decree mandates that the Park Service can operate under its interim plan for turtle nests closures until Sept. 15.  That plan calls for staking out the area of a nest with 30-by-30 foot symbolic fencing.  When the nest approaches the 50-day hatch window, the earliest it would normally hatch, the buffer is expanded from the nest to the ocean shoreline and dark filter fence is added to shield the hatchlings from artificial light.
Until Sept. 16, under the interim plan, the Park Service can allow ORV and pedestrian access behind the nest if possible.

(See articles on sea turtle nesting on Beach Access and Nature and Environment pages.)

After Sept. 15, all nests that reach the 50-day hatch window are required to be full dune to shoreline closures with no ORV or pedestrian access behind the nest. According to Michelle Bogardus, head turtle biologist, as of Aug. 9, there were 14 nests that will reach their 50 days after Sept. 15 and will require a full beach closure.  Bogardus said that the closures could affect ORV and pedestrian access to Cape Point this fall.


Under the consent decree, Murray said, beaches “closed earlier and stayed closed longer.”

“From a visitor access point of view,” he said, “closures at popular areas lasted much longer.”

Under the consent decree, Murray said, the highest number of beaches closed for resource management was in late May.  Last year, under the interim plan, the most closed beaches occurred in August.

The superintendent also noted the consent decree was difficult to implement because of “unpredictable” closures that visitors had a hard time understanding and keeping track of.

“We’re running around closing areas,” he said, “and then we are moving the closures as the birds move….We are chasing the birds”

“The long-term plan,” he said, “has got to be different from the consent decree and the interim plan.”

He said a possible solution could be to  identify areas that the birds like and just say they will be closed from this date to this date.”


Visitation at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was down this year through July by 10.27 percent, compared to last year’s figures through July.

Visitation for June was down almost 21 percent from last year, but Murray noted that eight of 10 national parks in North Carolina were also down in June. July visitation at the seashore was up 1.4 percent over last July.

Again, he warned against drawing the conclusion that the consent decree contributed to the decreased visitation numbers, noting that it’s hard to separate the effects of the consent decree from other factors, such as high gas prices.

He did acknowledge that specialized businesses, such as tackle shops, were seeing their business down since the consent decree.


“We know night fishing is important,” Murray said.

Under the consent decree, night driving between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. will be allowed from Sept. 16 through Nov. 15 with a park-issued permit. (From Nov. 16 until May 1, no permit is needed for night driving.)

Murray said the permit will be available before mid-September.  It will be free and widely available.  The application for the permit will be on the Internet, park rangers will have them, and Murray hopes that tackle shops will participate in handing them out.  Much of the permit is aimed at educating night drivers, who will be required to read and sign a document spelling out the rules.

In some areas, there may be designated routes for night driving.


On July 30, a Senate subcommittee had a hearing on S3113, which along with a companion bill in the House of Representatives, would nullify the consent decree and return to the interim plan for managing ORVs until there is a long-term rule.

Daniel N. Wenk, a deputy director of operations for the National Park Service, testified that the Department of Interior opposed the legislation and thought the park should continue under the consent decree.

Murray said Went is the senior ranking career employee in the Park Service, and that the testimony was reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget and by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

“The position given is the official view of the administration,” he said.

He added that he was not surprised by Wenk’s testimony.

“People ask me how I feel about it,” he said. “When you work for the government, you get over feeling.”


Murray said that implementing the consent decree through Aug. 6 has cost $316,117 more than would have been expected under the interim strategy. There will still be some additional costs.

He said there have been “unintended consequences” of the decree.  He specifically mentioned access for commercial fishermen.

“We are all open to looking at the consent decree for modifications,” he said.

The parties, he thinks, will get together at the end of the season.

“I would not expect big or drastic changes,” he noted.

In an unrelated discussion of peer reviewing of science, Murray may have shed some light on why federal attorneys did not more vigorously pursue the federal case in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups last October in U.S. District Court over ORV use on seashore.  The groups asked in February for an injunction to stop ORV use at popular areas of the park.

With their request for the injunction, the plaintiffs filed several declarations from experts in bird and turtle science.

“We had difficulty finding experts to back up the interim strategy,” Murray said.


The Island Free Press has been criticized by both environmental groups and ORV access groups for publishing the preliminary proposals from both sides on ORV routes and access.  The proposals are being considered by a subcommittee of the negotiated rulemaking committee.

Critics have noted that the proposals are very preliminary and have not been presented to the entire committee and that publishing them will bring a chilling effect to what members of the committee feel free to say in subcommittee meetings.

One subcommittee member requested that the proposals be removed from our Web site.

Obviously they have not been.

More people than just the half dozen or so subcommittee members have been aware of the proposals for ORV routes that include a proposal by environmental groups that some beaches, such as South Beach and South Point of Ocracoke, be permanently closed to ORVs. In fact, an Island Free Press reader in Ohio said he heard about the proposals on his most recent trip to Hatteras.

I was given the proposals by a person who thought they should be public.  I did not publish them for two days, while I considered the implications of publishing preliminary proposals.

Finally, I decided to publish them.  Why should visitors from Ohio know about them and the general public not know?  Why should county officials and ORV groups leaders know about them and the public not know?  Why should I know about them and the public not know?

And don’t forget that this is a federally appointed negotiated rulemaking committee whose meetings – though apparently not subcommittee meetings – are open to the public.

The public’s business should be conducted in public.  It’s that simple.

And if anything is the public’s business, it is their access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

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