June 16, 2015

Park Service approves buffer modification plan

By IRENE NOLAN



The National Park Service has approved a plan for how it will comply with changes in wildlife protections on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that are required by legislation passed last December by the U.S. Congress.

Among other things, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore legislation, passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Bill, instructs the Secretary of the Interior to review and adjust wildlife protection buffers, keep them in place the shortest possible duration, designate vehicle and pedestrian corridors around resource closures, and confer with the state of North Carolina on certain buffers and protections.

The legislation is intended to provide more access to the seashore for pedestrians and ORVs during the nesting season for shorebirds and sea turtles.

The Park Service released its proposed buffer modification in an Environmental Assessment document on April 29, followed by a week of public meetings and several weeks of public comment.

The EA analyzed the potential impact of two courses of action -- Alternative A, which is "no action" or continuing with current management and is the environmentally preferred alternative, and Alternative B, which modifies buffers and/or provides additional access corridors and is the park's preferred alternative.

Today, seashore Superintendent Dave Hallac released the final plan for modifications in an 82-page Finding of No Significant Impact document for the park's chosen alternative, which is Alternative B.

The final document makes only minor changes to the proposed buffer modifications.

In the case of American oystercatchers, the language is slightly changed to provide an ORV corridor along the waterline during nesting if no other route is available and the nest is preferably at least 50 meters but no less than 25 meters from vehicle corridor. Previously, the language referred only to "at least 25 meters" from the corridor.

There was no mention of relocating sea turtle nests in the proposals.  The final document notes that "on the rare occasion" that a turtle nest is laid in a location to block access in an ORV ramp and there is no ability to provide another route or corridor, the nest may be relocated.

Here is the final wording on the modified buffers:
  • For American oystercatchers: There will be an ORV corridor at the waterline during nesting, but only when (a) no alternate route is available, and (b) the nest is preferably at least 50 meters, but no less than 25 meters from the vehicle corridor. Buffer reductions and corridors will only be implemented with at least twice daily monitoring to ensure that the area can be managed appropriately when chicks hatch. Buffers for nests and unfledged chicks will stay the same as they are now.
  • For piping plovers and Wilson’s plovers: The buffer during nesting will be reduced from 75 meters to 50 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs. For unfledged chicks, the buffer will be reduced from 300 meters to 100 meters (pedestrians) and from 1,000 meters to 500 meters (ORVs). Where the standard 500 meter buffer blocks ORV access, the buffer may be reduced to no less than 200 meters to allow an access corridor along the shoreline.  Buffer reductions when chicks are present will only be implemented with intensive monitoring by qualified staff.
  • For least terns: The buffer for unfledged chicks will be reduced from 200 meters to 100 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs. The buffer during nesting would stay the same.  Buffer reductions and corridors will only be implemented with at least twice daily monitoring to ensure that the area can be managed appropriately when chicks become mobile.
  • For common terns, gull-billed terns, and black skimmers: The buffer for these species during nesting and when unfledged chicks are present will be reduced from 200 meters to 180 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs.
  • For sea turtles: The expansion buffer will be reduced to 30 meters (15 meters on either side), and, when light filtering fencing is installed, 5 meters minimum behind the nest. In the absence of an existing corridor, the shorter buffer behind the nest may allow ORVs to travel behind a nest where sufficient beach width exists. Where a turtle nest blocks access during the hatch window from one ORV area to another and no way around the nest exists, ORVs may drive in front of the nest only when qualified staff are regularly monitoring the nest for signs of hatching and available to remove ruts in front of nests on a daily basis.

For nests laid prior to June 1, the seashore will retain the option of not expanding the buffer until day 60, unless signs of hatching prior to day 60 were detected. For nests laid after Aug. 20, the seashore will retain the option of not expanding the buffer for nests that block access to ORV passage.

On the rare occasion that a sea turtle nest is laid in such a location as to completely block ORV ramp access to and from an open section of beach where there is no ability to provide a corridor or other route around the nest, that nest may be relocated to an area that does not block access. 

The Park Service says that the buffers and corridors are contingent on NPS having the resources -- both funding and staff -- to perform intensive or increased monitoring to protect species. In cases, where resource management personnel document adverse impacts to resources greater than those described in the EA, the seashore would retain the discretion to revert to the resource protection measures in the ORV Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Hallac has said that the park will need about $260,000 to fund the extra positions needed for monitoring and that the funding will be available.

Parts of the selected alternative may be implemented during the summer of 2015, Hallac has said, though what can be done at this point in the nesting season and with available staff is limited. The entire plan will be implemented in 2016, once additional staff members are available.

The Park Service received 9,255 responses to the EA during the comment period. The responses included 6,770 comments, of which 129 were substantive. The park says that a variety of views were expressed by commenters, ranging from support for the existing buffers in the ORV FEIS (alternative A), to qualified support for the selected alternative (the NPS preferred alternative), to suggestions that NPS establish smaller or larger buffers than those proposed in the selected alternative. The majority of comments were from individual citizens, but comments were also submitted by organizations and government agencies.

Seashore officials say that substantive comments consisted of questions about or challenges to the selected alternative and suggestions for clarifying and improving the modified buffers and corridors. About 30 pages of answers to these responses are included in Appendix C of the document released today.

The final plan was approved by Stan Austin, the Director of the Southeast Region of the National Park Service, completing the National Environmental Policy Act and Environmental Assessment (EA) process which began earlier this year.  The EA and FONSI were prepared in close coordination and consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

“Wildlife protection buffers described under the plan's selected action will continue to protect wildlife species while providing additional flexibility to allow access to pedestrians and off road vehicles,” Hallac said in today's news release.

Later this summer, Hallac says that seashore officials will begin a public process to consider modifications to the 2012 final rule on ORV management. These include changes to the final rule related to morning openings of beaches, the time periods open for use of seasonal off road vehicle routes, and the size and location of vehicle free areas.

Click here to read the document, Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact for review and adjustment of wildlife buffers.

For more information on the legislation passed by Congress and how it affects access at the seashore, go to http://www.nps.gov/caha/learn/management/2015ndaa.
 


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