|Beach Access and Park Issues
| November 6, 2009
State Sen. Marc Basnight urges support
of bill to overturn consent decree
By IRENE NOLAN
In an attempt to gain more Democratic support for a bill to set aside a
consent decree that now dictates off-road vehicle access to the Cape
Hatteras National Seashore, state Sen. Marc Basnight has sent a letter
to members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation.
In the letter, dated Oct. 28, Basnight, a Democrat from Manteo who is
President Pro Tempore of the state Senate, urged the state’s
Democrats to support H.R. 718 that would set aside the consent
decree and would return management to the National Park Service’s
Interim Protected Species Management Plan.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., introduced the bill in the House of Representatives in January.
The bill is a carbon copy of the legislation Jones introduced in the 110th Congress in June of last year.
The stated purpose of the very brief, two-page bill is “to
reinstate the Interim Management Strategy governing off-road vehicle
use on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, pending the issuance of a
final rule for off-road vehicle use by the National Park
Service.” The bill has only two short sections – one to
reinstate the interim strategy and one that says the consent decree
would no long apply.
In August, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced an identical bill in
the Senate. The bill, S. 1557, is co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
Jones’ bill has eight co-sponsors, but only one Democrat, North
Carolina’s G.K. Butterfield. It also has support from four of the
state’s Republicans – Reps. Virginia Foxx, Sue Myrick,
Howard Coble, and Patrick McHenry.
In a Congress controlled by Democrats, the legislation needs more Democratic support.
Basnight’s letter went to Hagan and Butterfield, and to
Democratic Congressmen Mike McIntyre, Heath Shuler, Brad Miller, David
Price, Bob Etheridge, Larry Kissell, and Mel Watt.
Here is the text of Basnight’s letter:
Dear Democratic Members of North Carolina’s Congressional Delegation:
I am pleased that in August, North Carolina’s two U.S. Senators
joined together to co-sponsor legislation (S. 1557) to keep the federal
government’s promise to the people of the Outer Banks and to
preserve what has been a focal point of our community’s culture,
economy and coastal heritage for generations. I write to you
today in hopes that you, too, will join in bipartisan unity to support
H.R. 718, as Congressman Butterfield along with all our state’s
Republican congressional members have already done.
This legislation will maintain public access to Cape Hatteras National
Seashore – as the federal government had always intended.
It also will provide a lifeline to local families and small businesses
that are struggling so valiantly in these difficult economic times, and
allow for the Park Service to continue developing long-term plans to
manage off-road vehicle access in a way that protects sensitive species
without forever banning the human presence.
As you may know, a Consent Decree issued in 2008 now governs beach
access at the Seashore as the result of a lawsuit that heavily funded,
out-of-state environmental interest groups filed alleging that the Park
Service’s interim beach access management strategy did not go far
enough to protect shorebirds and sea turtles. But what you may
not know is just as important: the Park’s interim strategy was
approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, endured a NEPA review,
was developed in a public process with public input, and offers
protections for wildlife along with reasonable access for family
recreation. The Consent Decree that currently governs beach
access at the Park did not undergo any such public or environmental
review – which directly conflicts with the Park’s guiding
principles and historical collaboration with the community.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, the federal government began actively
looking for ways to provide recreational opportunities in federally
owned public lands. And as Cape Hatteras National Seashore
– America’s first national seashore park – began to
take shape, public access and enjoyment was at the very heart of the
park’s creation. As the Seashore was being developed, Outer
Banks residents and visitors were deeply concerned that government
involvement would interfere with the public’s enjoyment of and
access to the beaches of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. What an
incredible relief it was that the Park Service and the Department of
the Interior were willing to work so closely and cooperatively with the
local community to address these concerns. Indeed, the federal
legislation that created the park expressly specified that it was to be
a “national seashore recreational area for the benefit and
enjoyment of the people” – setting a promise of public
access and enjoyment in the law itself.
In 1952 during discussions of adjusting the boundaries of the Seashore,
Park Service Director Conrad Wirth wrote an open letter to the people
of the Outer Banks reassuring them that the beaches would continue to
be open for their use, stating, “…when the lands for the
Recreational Area are acquired and become public property there will
always be access to the beach for all people, whether they are local
residents or visitors from the outside.” Access to the
beaches has always included vehicles – in fact, before we had
roads built in the Outer Banks, the beaches were our roads.
Wirth’s 1952 letter states a clear intent to continue to allow
vehicle access in the Seashore, specifically noting that “it will
be necessary to establish certain regulations, such as to designate
places for vehicles to get to the beach, in order to reduce sand dune
erosion to a minimum…”
Beach driving, surf fishing, watersports and other such water-based
activities are beloved local traditions and recreational opportunities
that help people truly appreciate – and in turn, work to protect
– our natural resources. Those who enjoy these types of
activities are, in fact, among our most conscientious stewards of the
environment because they want their children and grandchildren to be
able to enjoy this resource as well.
Additionally, the economies of Hatteras and Ocracoke depend solely upon
fishing and tourism, and losing access to some of the nation’s
most premier surf-fishing spots has been a devastating blow to our
local community and economy – and to the prestige that Cape
Hatteras gives North Carolina as a world-renowned destination for
fishing and recreation.
Ensuring that residents and visitors to Cape Hatteras National Seashore
can enjoy the traditional uses of the area is the duty of the Park
Service, not the court system. The National Park Service had
developed and implemented a sensible interim management plan based on
the best science available. The plan endured several thorough
environmental reviews, was developed in a public process with public
feedback, and protects wildlife while continuing to uphold the federal
government’s promise to its people.
The court’s Consent Decree, in contrast, did not go through any
such public process or any environmental scrutiny. Moreover,
preliminary data show that the Consent Decree cannot be credited with
producing any significant gains in the number of piping plover chicks,
oystercatchers or other endangered or threatened birds, not to mention
sea turtles. Finally, the financial costs of the Consent Decree
– costs to the Park Service to administer the Consent Decree
restrictions, costs to local taxpayers for legal fees that were
assessed a result of the lawsuit, and costs to the local employers and
businesses – are burdensome in an already difficult economic
I write today to urge you to support H.R. 718 and do all you can to put
beach management back in the hands of the National Park Service, where
it belongs, and keep the promise that the federal government made
decades ago to the people of the Outer Banks and America. I
hope you will take the action needed to protect our heritage, our
environment, our economy, and the people’s right of access to