Beach Access Issues
March 2, 2009

This year’s beach access outlook: There will be beaches
open, but not all of them will be open all of the time


Will I be able to drive to Cape Point during the week of April 20? This is not the only place I like to fish but is one of my favorites for all the right reasons. If so, I'll come to the Outer Banks for a week. If not, I'll just go to Morehead or Pawley's Island.

--Wayne Church
    Pfafftown, N.C.

We are just broken-hearted at what has happened to Hatteras. I don't get a lot of time off each year, but we always found time to spend a week there each year for the last 10 years or so. We'd drive over the ramps the first day, and it was like the weight of the world was suddenly lifted. I'll always remember the amazing joy on my children's faces when they would run and play on the beaches there. We took the opportunity to teach them how truly precious this place is. We went elsewhere last year because of the uncertainty, and from the news we're seeing now, it looks like our days in the Hatteras sun may well be over. It just breaks my heart.

--Roger Bohnke
Yorktown, Va.

I actually just have a question regarding the beach closures. Our family came last spring, and the beaches were open to night driving until I believe May 5, at which time night access was restricted. For our fall trip to the island, we were allowed back on the beaches at night. Now as our annual spring trip nears on April 25, I have tried to find out what the closures will be like at that time, to no avail. If anyone knows of the status of the closures for the week of April 25, I would appreciate any info you could give me. As a Hatteras visitor religiously for the last 20 years, I hope that we can keep our beaches open.

--Melanie Welch
Morgantown, W.Va.

When will there be a final (on negotiated rulemaking) so we as out-of-town travelers can plan our fishing trips and know what we face when we arrive -- or if we choose to arrive, depending on the outcome.

--Stuart Bush
Aylett, Va.

These e-mails are just a sampling of the questions we are receiving at The Island Free Press as the nesting season for birds and turtles gets closer.

Many regular visitors want to know if the beach will be open to off-road vehicles, which beaches will be open to ORVs, and exactly when they will be open.

The good news is that there will be beaches open to ORVs this spring and summer.  In fact, there will probably be quite a few miles of beach open. The not-so-good news is that they may not be the beaches you want to go to. And you will not know ahead to time which beaches are open and which are not, since it all depends on where the birds go.

Right now, it would seem that you can expect about the same pre-nesting and nesting closures as last year.

But all will depend on where the birds decide to nest.

And, for now, you can expect significant closures from May through July of beaches at Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, South Beach in Frisco, Hatteras Inlet spit, and the north and south points of Ocracoke – just as we saw last year.


We have had beach closures for nesting birds and turtles on Hatteras and Ocracoke for decades now.  The closures date to at least the 1970s, which were the first years I came to Hatteras.

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been required to have an off-road vehicle plan since the mid-1970s.

Although a plan was prepared in 1978 and sent to park headquarters in Washington, D.C., it was never officially approved and published in the Federal Register.

The beach closures got more attention when piping plovers were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1986.

In the mid-1990s, when environmental groups began noticing that the seashore had no long-term ORV rule, the Park Service began talking about formulating one – or another one, however you want to look at it.

For at least the last half dozen years, the Park Service has talked about devising the rule through a process known as negotiated rulemaking.

That process finally got officially underway in January of 2007. Twenty-nine stakeholder groups tried for the better part of a year to reach a consensus about where vehicles and pedestrians were to be allowed on the beach and how to best protect nesting birds and turtles.

Meanwhile, the Park Service wrote an Interim Protected Species Management Plan to regulate resource management and beach access until there was a long-term rule.

Then in October, 2007,  Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit against the National Park Service over its Interim Protected Species Management Plan.

The plaintiffs claimed that ORV use on the seashore is illegal, since the Park Service does not have a special rule to regulate it, as has been required since 1972.  Also, they claimed that the interim plan did not go far enough to protect wildlife in the park, especially shorebirds and sea turtles.

In February, 2008, the groups asked U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle for a temporary injunction to prohibit ORV use on six popular areas of the seashore – Bodie Island spit, Cape Point and parts of the South Beach, Hatteras Inlet, and the north and south points of Ocracoke – until the lawsuit was settled.

The defendants are the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others, including the director of the National Park Service and the superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

In December, 2007, Boyle allowed Dare and Hyde counties and the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance to become defendant/intervenors in the lawsuit to represent the interests of the public.

The parties to the suit – environmental groups, the Park Service, and the intervenors -- reached an agreement to settle the issues last spring.  The consent decree was signed by Boyle on April 30 of last year.

The requirements of the consent decree caused unprecedented closures of seashore beaches last summer during nesting season and implemented, among other things, much larger buffer distances around bird nests and a night driving ban from May 1 until Sept. 16 to protect nesting sea turtles.

The National Park Service’s negotiated rulemaking committee ended its meetings on Feb. 26 without reaching a consensus on ORV access to the seashore.  It will be up to seashore superintendent Mike Murray and his staff to formulate a final ORV regulation, which is required to be in place by April, 2011.

For this summer and next summer, the consent decree will control Park Service management of seashore beaches.

Here is a summary of what you can expect this spring and summer.


Pre-nesting closures will go into effect on March 15 and will close areas that have historically been nesting areas for piping plovers, the only federally protected bird on the seashore.

These are the areas that have recently had plover nests and are being closed in anticipation of the arrival of nesting pairs this year.

You can view the maps of pre-nesting closures at

The pre-nesting areas are similar to what they were last year with a few exceptions.  At Bodie Island, the closures are more restrictive because of beach erosion.  At Cape Point, there are some additional pre-nesting closures on the west side of the Point because of a piping plover that nested there last year.  Erosion at Hatteras Inlet spit will make that area somewhat more restricted during the spring.  The north and south points of Ocracoke have about the same pre-nesting closures as last year.

In other words, if you came to Hatteras and Ocracoke last spring and were happy with the ORV access, you probably will be happy this year also.

When you look at the pre-nesting maps, remember that for most of the pre-nesting areas, the areas in the pink or peach color, there is a corridor along the beach above the high-tide line to provide access.

Reading the maps with all their lines and colors may be confusing for some, but there will be access to all of the most popular areas of the seashore, including Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, South Beach, Hatteras Inlet, and the north and south points of Ocracoke.


The nesting closures will begin when the birds arrive and start exhibiting breeding behavior, making scrapes in the sand as nesting behavior, establishing their nests, and hatching chicks.

The large closures around the areas of breeding and nesting birds were established the first week of May last year after U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle signed a consent decree on April 30, which settled a lawsuit by environmental groups against the Park Service.

The buffers around nests required by the consent decree resulted in much more extensive beach closures than in past years and closed many more areas of the beach than islanders and visitors were accustomed to.

However, there were beaches open last summer. And there will be again this summer.  They may not be the beaches you want to go to, depending on where the birds decide to nest.

Since they historically nest in many of the same areas – the spits and points – you can expect closures similar to those of last summer.

For example, Cape Point was inaccessible for much of last summer because the buffers around nests north and south of the Point closed the beach from the dunes to the high-tide line.  While Cape Point itself was not closed, you couldn’t get there. That situation persisted from early May until late July. The same situation existed on Ocracoke, where South Point was inaccessible for much of the summer.

However, there were many miles of beaches open last summer.

According to the National Park Service, during June and July when the most miles of beach were closed for nesting, there were still 27 of the 68 miles of seashore beach open to ORVs.

One of the most popular beaches on the seashore is South Beach in Frisco. About half of it was closed last summer, but even on the holiday weekends of Memorial Day and July 4, there was room for all those who wanted to be there.  Granted, the vehicles were packed closer together, but all who wanted could find a space to enjoy the beach.

This is what the National Park Service is telling visitors who inquire about beach access:

“The breeding season for shorebirds at Cape Hatteras is typically from mid-March until mid-to-late August. At the moment, it is too early to predict where bird populations will establish nests or nesting colonies this summer. Based on recent years' nesting activity, it is highly likely that prescribed shorebird protections will significantly restrict and temporarily preclude ORV access to Cape Point and the inlets during the portions of the spring and summer; however, until the breeding activity occurs National Park Service staff cannot know or predict exactly where or when these closures will be implemented or when they will be lifted.”


Driving at night on seashore beaches will be prohibited from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. from May 1 until Sept. 15 to protect nesting sea turtles. From Sept. 16 until Nov. 15, driving on the beach at night is allowed with a permit from the National Park Service.  Again, there will be no charge for the permit and it will be easily available online.

Driving at night on the seashore’s beach will be allowed without a permit from Nov. 16 until May 1.


Again this year, the National Park Service will have its Google Earth maps of beach closures – which are updated regularly, sometimes daily.

The Park Service will also be issuing its weekly Beach Access Report.

Both the maps and the weekly reports will be available on The Island Free Press Web site.

So, I can say to Wayne Church:  It will be close on your April 20 trip to fish at Cape Point.  There is a chance that you will be able to get there, but if not, other beaches will be open.

To Roger Bohnke:  Bring your kids on down to the beach this summer.  You will be able to drive over that ramp and see their joy at being able to run and play on the beach.

To Melanie Welch, who is coming the week of April 25:  You will be able to drive on the beach at night.  And there will be many beaches still open.

And to Stuart Bush:  Negotiated rulemaking ended with no agreement by the committee members.  But that has nothing to do with beach access this spring and summer – or even next year.

The bottom line is that access will be uncertain, depending on what the birds do, but if you come to Hatteras or Ocracoke, you will have ORV access to the beaches.

(Please send this link to all of your relatives and friends who visit Hatteras and Ocracoke regularly and who want to know about access this summer.)

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