Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray and some of his staff members met earlier this week with local reporters for a media roundtable discussion about park issues.
Murray regularly meets with reporters, usually several times a year, an arrangement that works well for park staff and for reporters.
This week’s meeting, like most of them, included a wide range of topics and questions – from permits to citations to new infrastructure that is needed to support the Park Service’s off-road vehicle plan and final rule.
Today’s blog includes highlights from the meeting.
Paul Stevens, the seashore’s chief enforcement ranger, said that to date, the park has sold 4,359 permits – 3,217 annual permits and 1,142 weekly permits. Another 147 permits went to people with commercial fishing licenses, who do not have to pay for them.
Stevens said that, as of April 28, rangers had handed out six tickets to folks without a permit. They also issued 50 written warnings, and 109 verbal warnings.
“We aren’t taking a heavy-handed approach,” Stevens said. “In my opinion, we are getting good compliance.”
If a ranger finds an ORV on the beach without a permit, he or she explains the new program, tells the beachgoers where to get a permit, and asks them to leave the beach until they have purchased one.
If you are ticketed, the fine is $150 – plus the cost of getting the permit.
“I have a general impression that it’s going well,” Murray said.
Park Service public affairs specialist Cyndy Holda said most of her phone calls in the past few weeks have been from folks seeking information about the permit – rather than complaining about it.
Park officials also noted that the permit office was open extra hours for the Capital City 4-by-4 fishing tournament last weekend, and will also probably be open extra hours on Memorial Day. Summer hours have not been determined yet, but park staff will keep a close eye on the crowding situation as the summer season approaches. Long waits have not been a problem yet.
The Park Service’s new ORV plan and final rules includes new infrastructure to accommodate the new ways in which visitors are getting to the ocean and soundside beaches. New ramps, parking areas, boardwalks, and interdunal roads are part of the plan.
Before it can build the new infrastructure, the Park Service needs to complete an Environmental Assessment.
On March 1, the Park Service asked for public comment on the infrastructure improvements that will be analyzed in the Environmental Assessment.
The public comment period closed on March 31. Assistant Seashore Superintendent Darrell Echols said that the park received 64 responses.
“About half were substantive,” Echols said, while they other half were from people who just wanted the plan “to go away.”
Echols said the schedule is to have a draft EA sometime in October, which will also be put out for public comment, and a final EA and Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Echols said, park contractors will work on site assessments over the summer when there is the most vegetation and park staff will begin work on designing the new infrastructure and on getting permits from such agencies as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The goal, park officials said, is to put the new facilities in areas that are “good locations and don’t have permitting challenges.”
Murray said that he hopes to see the high-priority facilities ready for the 2013 season, but the park has not yet begun prioritizing.
And, if park officials are worried about where the money is going to come from, they still are not saying so publicly.
They said again this week that the funding will not come in “one lump sum.” Instead, seashore managers will get the funds from a variety of sources, including the 80 percent of fee money from such things as lighthouse climbing and campgrounds that stays in the park, the sale of ORV permits, and merit grants.
“We’re in a good position to do well,” they say.
PARKING WOES ON HIGHWAY 12
Many island residents and visitors would say that additional parking at popular soundside areas for watersports are a high priority.
The arrival en masse of kiteboarders and windsurfers this month is a welcome sight for businesses and residents, but along with them has come a problem that wasn’t difficult to anticipate.
ORV permits are required for all vehicles on all beaches, including soundside beaches.
Many of the soundside beaches are very close to Highway 12, so rather than buy permits, many folks are choosing to park on the shoulder of the highway – which isn’t even much of a shoulder in some places – and hike with their gear to beaches.
This is especially a problem at Kite Point between Avon and Buxton, where there is no parking lot, and sometimes at the Sandy Bay turnout east of Hatteras village, where there is a parking lot.
On Saturday afternoon, April 21, more than 50 vehicles were parked on both sides of Highway 12 at Kite Point, and the next day there was crowding at Sandy Bay, where 63 vehicles were counted. They filled the parking lot and spilled out to Highway 12 shoulders.
Vehicles can also be seen parking on the highway at almost all the soundside access roads from Avon to Salvo.
The Park Service recognizes the public safety issues and says it is doing counts of vehicles in crowded areas and will get the information to the NC Department of Transportation, which would then decide if the speed limit should be lowered in some areas.
Park officials say that now that the final plan and rule are law, they cannot grant an exception to the permit requirement in some areas until more parking areas are built.
The National Park Service will again provide lifeguards at the Coquina Beach Day Use Area, the Lighthouse Beach in Buxton, and the Ocracoke Day Use Area. In the past, lifeguards were on duty from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., seven days a week.
The lifeguards will begin duties on Saturday, May 26, and the park officials hope they will be able to provide lifeguards at all three beaches until Labor Day, Sept. 3. In the past, there have been some problems with college students having to return to campus earlier than Labor Day.
Nesting season for shorebirds is in full swing.
As of today, according to park resource biologist Britta Muiznieks, there are five active piping plover nests – one at Bodie Island, three at Cape Point, and one on the South Point of Ocracoke. Two nests at Cape Point have been lost to unknown causes.
Muiznieks said that the two pair of plovers who lost nests will probably make another attempt. She also noted that, for reasons unknown, the plovers at Cape Point have nested lower on the beach this year, though she said renest attempts may be higher on the beach.
So far, 23 pairs of American oystercatchers have 16 active nests on the seashore, most on Hatteras Island. One nest has been lost.
There are currently no active colonial waterbird colonies, and no sea turtle nests on the seashore. Murray said that so far no turtle nests have been reported on the North Carolina coast, and that nesting in the seashore usually begins about mid-May.
The seashore issues a Resource Management Field Summary each Thursday during the nesting season. You can find current and past reports on the Beach Access and Park Issues Page – in the red box at the top of the page.
Other topics covered in the media roundtable with Murray and his staff will be covered in future blogs and articles.