There were many weighty and complicated issues in the recently released National Park Service Environmental Impact Statement on Off-Road Vehicle Rulemaking at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
But the one I keep coming back to and going over in my mind is the change in beach campfire regulations under the Park Service’s preferred alternative.
I surely did not want to have to tell my grandchildren – or their parents – that there will be no more bonfires when they come here to visit.
Well, maybe, if they start coming for Christmas we can have a beach fire, but not during their two- or three-week summer vacation.
The beach fires are a treasured tradition in our family – and in the families of many other islanders and visitors.
My family started having bonfires on the beach more than 30 years ago when my two children were youngsters.
Now they have nine children between them. And after a hiatus when the kids were really young, those grandchildren have adopted the bonfire tradition as their own.
The beach fire tradition has actually grown into a day-long affair.
Mornings are spent preparing and packing everything needed for dinner. I hate to say it, but that task usually falls to the girls and mothers, while the boys and dads scavenge for scrap wood and get everything else packed into the vehicles.
Shortly after lunch, everyone heads to the beach, with vehicles absolutely loaded down with everything for a successful evening at the beach. The past few years, there has been scrap lumber strapped to the top of vehicles and grills fastened to platforms on the back of them.
Afternoons are spent swimming and boogie boarding. As the late afternoon approaches, parents light the charcoal grills and set up a makeshift table.
The grandkids and various cousins and friends start to work on digging the pit for the fire -- below the high-tide line, of course – and arranging the wood just so in a pyramid. While they wait for dinner, the kids play soccer or bocce ball on the beach.
We keep dinner simple – mostly hamburgers and hot dogs and chips. We learned long ago that little kids with food on plates are not a good idea on a windy beach with seagulls hovering for leftovers. Too much food ends up in the sand.
Some years, we are lucky enough to have clams to roast on the grill or steamed crabs. The children love banging the crabs to crack them open, but aren’t real big on eating them.
The rule is to clean up everything before dark. Next the kids arrange chairs in a big circle around the fire and wait impatiently for the sun to drop behind the dunes and into the western sky.
They beg to be chosen to light the fire, roast marshmallows for s’mores, throw sand on the fire to see all the colors that are created, and run around the beach.
The stargazing is terrific, and the kids like to go to the water’s edge and look for ghost crabs or phosphorescence – the tiny luminescent plankton that glow along the hard, wet sand when you drag you feet along the beach or stir up the water in the shallows. In some years, the glowing creatures have been temporarily housed in jars, where they make almost enough light to read a book by.
Two years ago, under the consent decree, the children were disappointed to learn that all vehicles have to be off the beach by 10 p.m. Bonfires, they think, were made to be enjoyed far longer.
But they all accepted the new rules and started the fires a little earlier than usual.
And they were always packed up and off the beach by 10 p.m.
However, now the rules have changed.
And there apparently will be no more summer beach picnics and bonfires.
In its preferred alternative, the Park Service says the beach fires are allowed year-round with the following restrictions:
- A non-fee education fire permit is required for any beach fire.
- Fires are prohibited from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. (And vehicles must be off the beach from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m.
- Fires are prohibited within resource closures and within 100 meters of any turtle nest closure. (Well, of course!)
- And the killer is this – from May 1 until Nov. 15, fires are permitted only in front of the villages on Hatteras Island and the Coquina Beach and Ocracoke day use areas during the sea turtle nesting season.
In another part of the voluminous FEIS, the Park Service says fires will also be allowed on the Lighthouse Beach and the Frisco Day Use Area.
I’m not sure which is correct, but the effect is the same. If you don’t own or rent a pricey oceanfront house, you can forget having a beach fire for more than half the year.
Why limit the fires to areas in front of villages and day use areas?
In its response to public comments after the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued last March, the Park Service said, “…the limitation of fires to certain developed areas of the seashore would limit and reduce the potential disturbance of nesting turtles and emerging hatchlings.”
Sea turtles do not necessarily avoid the village beaches, though fewer of them may nest there than on more isolated stretches of beach. In fact, several years ago, a park ranger told me about an incident near the Avon Pier – in front of the village – in which turtle hatchlings tried to crawl into a beach fire and were rescued by visitors.
The effect of this regulation is that only those who can afford to rent on the oceanfront will enjoy summer beach fires.
There are few, if any, public accesses in the villages for parking, and I doubt oceanfront property owners want folks traipsing through their yards to get to the beach – even if they could carry enough wood for a really good fire.
If we have to clear vehicles off the beach by 9 p.m. and prohibit fires in most places to protect turtles, then so be it.
But let’s don’t make the village oceanfront dwellers a privileged class.
If bonfires are prohibited, they should be prohibited on the entire seashore.
And, by the way, the photo with this article was taken at last summer’s bonfire and is, I presume, the last summer beach fire.