Beach Access and Park  Issues
November 6,  2009

State Sen. Marc Basnight urges support
of bill to overturn consent decree


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 situation. 

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 their Seashore.

Sincerely yours,
Marc Basnight

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