|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
By IRENE NOLAN
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
WHY SOME BEACHES ARE CLOSED
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
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
For at least the last half dozen years, the Park Service has talked
about devising the rule through a process known as negotiated
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
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
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
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 http://islandfreepress.org/2009Archives/02.20.2009-ParkServiceHasReleasedPrenestingClosureInformationAndMaps.html
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
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
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
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.
GETTING INFORMATION ON BEACH ACCESS
Again this year, the National Park Service will have its Google Earth
maps of beach closures – which are updated regularly, sometimes
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.)