Outer Banks Group superintendent Mike Murray announced to his staff yesterday that he will retire on July 31.
Murray, 57, made the announcement in his signature low-key manner – with a short e-mail:
“After 34 years with the National Park Service, I plan to retire as of July 31, 2012. It has been my privilege to serve as the Superintendent of the Outer Banks Group for the past six and half years. I have greatly appreciated the dedication and hard work of the park staff in serving park visitors and protecting park resources during my time here. We have accomplished a great deal together. There will be more information forthcoming in the weeks ahead as to how the Southeast Regional Office will provide for continuity of leadership at the Group until a new Superintendent is selected. Meanwhile, we are heading into a busy Summer season with lots to keep us busy. If I had but one wish for my remaining days as an employee of the National Park Service, it would be that each of you stay safe, happy, healthy, and productive as you conduct your duties and live your lives in the days ahead.”
There was no media release. Murray is out of the office this week and was not available for comment.
The news was met with little surprise on Hatteras and Ocracoke, where folks understood that Murray was sent here for a reason – to implement an off-road management plan for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
He accomplished that mission. The plan and final regulation were effective on Feb. 15.
There were no “mission accomplished” banners and the introduction of the plan and the permits now required for ORV use on seashore beaches was also low-key.
However, the response to the plan was loud and swift from groups that advocate for more reasonable access for ORVs and pedestrians than the plan allows.
The Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance filed a lawsuit against the Park Service to stop the plan on Feb. 9, less than a week before it was final.
And U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. introduced companion bills in Congress to return the seashore to the 2007 Interim Protected Species Management Plan until the Park Service can implement an ORV rule that allows more reasonable access.
Murray arrived in the Outer Banks in December, 2005, and took over the management of the seashore after a series of superintendents that came and went – the last one, Lawrence Belli, was basically banished and reassigned to the Southeast Regional Office. He was followed by two short-term interim superintendents, whose names were barely familiar to the public when they, too, moved on.
Residents and visitors, who know the park had to come up with a long-term ORV plan welcomed Murray as someone who might stay long enough to do it, and do it fairly and equitably.
In his first meeting with local reporters in January of 2006, Murray said he felt like he was on a “runaway train.”
“I can see this could be a very complex job,” he said.
At that meeting, he was energetic and enthusiastic, and optimistic yet realistic about the future.
“I am optimistic,” he said, “that, given time, we can work this through.”
A slender man who is a regular runner and participates in marathon races, Murray was then 51 with dark, close cropped hair and a mustache.
Six years later, he’s still slender, but his dark hair and mustache are now salt-and-pepper.
He has always been nothing but patient and low-key, even in contentious meetings with the public. His demeanor is quite serious, and he only occasionally shows that he has a wry sense of humor.
He was welcomed – even embraced -- by the local community, whose members thought he would be the seashore chief who would listen to them.
Folks were optimistic -- or at least cautiously optimistic.
However, Murray’s honeymoon on Hatteras and Ocracoke didn’t last very long.
His tenure grew ever more contentious, as the bitterness of the local communities toward the Park Service continued to grow.
At that first meeting, Murray acknowledged that the ORV plan was the top priority and he said formulating the plan would be “tough.” He had arrived at Cape Hatteras after eight years as assistant superintendent as Cape Cod National Seashore, which just before his arrival had put in place its own ORV plan with permits after successful negotiated rulemaking among the stakeholder groups.
He was hopeful about negotiated rulemaking to formulate a plan at Cape Hatteras, but that process was a disaster that many blame on a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that had a seat at the negotiating table just before the process officially started.
The National Park Service allowed those groups to continue to participate, and tensions and resentment just continued to increase among the groups that advocated for more reasonable beach access.
“We wish him well in his retirement,” John Couch, president of the Outer Banks Preservation Association said today, choosing his words carefully.
Couch was among those who were cautiously optimistic when Murray arrived.
“He was willing to work, to learn, to speak to everybody,” Couch said. “But the system was hijacked (by environmental groups).”
Couch sees the negotiated rulemaking process and the lawsuits as a turning point in the relationship between Murray and the community. And, in the end, he thinks access groups lost on all fronts.
“We were hoodwinked,” Couch says.
“We tried our best to work with him and his staff only to have him turn his back on the local community and visitors (on access) to what was the premier ‘recreational area’ in the NPS system,” said Jim Keene of Nags Head, who participated in negotiated rulemaking when he was president of the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association. “It will take many years, if ever, to recover from what has been done under his watch.”
“He came in as a friend,” said Bryan Perry, owner of the Frisco Rod and Gun and Frisco Supermarket.
Murray, who grew up in Franklin, Va., talked with Perry and his family about visits to his aunt and uncle who lived in Frisco when he was a youngster. Perry now feels betrayed.
“Not only did they not negotiate, but they stuck it to us all together,” he said, adding that he was not bitter until he saw the final rule but now considers Murray a “hit man” for the Park Service.
Other local business owners are just as bitter as Perry and have nothing nice to say about Murray.
Others are slightly more circumspect.
“Mike Murray was sent here to do a job,” said Allen Burrus of Hatteras, vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners. “He did it, and now he’s leaving.”
Burrus is another who said he was hopeful that Murray would oversee a “fair and equitable plan.”
That didn’t happen, Burrus thinks.
“I am not foolish enough to blame him completely,” Burrus added, “but he could have done more here than he did.”
Burrus, like others, thinks Murray was between a “rock and a hard place,” squeezed between the policies of the bureaucracy of the Department of Interior and the Park Service and the increasing pressure on both from environmental groups.
“I believe Mike’s hands were tied,” said Scott Leggat, vice-president of Outer Beaches Realty who represented the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in negotiated rulemaking, who now says many participated in negotiated rulemaking “under a false premise.”
It was a no-win situation for Murray, says Leggat.
“I always regarded Mike as a person of integrity and an honest broker, one who brought concern to the table,” Leggat said today. “He showed a lot of personal courage. He did not duck the difficult moments. And he was always willing to meet with people who viewed the circumstances differently.
“He was doing a job. We just didn’t understand what the job was.”
The final ORV plan and the resulting bitterness and contentiousness, Leggat thinks, are “an unfortunate legacy for him to leave here.”
As an editor and reporter, I always found Mike Murray available and as forthcoming as he could probably be, in light of the lawsuits and controversy that surrounded his signature accomplishment here. He was never difficult to deal with.
It is unfortunate that he will be remembered – and not kindly – for bringing us the final ORV plan and rule and not for any of his other accomplishments, not the least of which was the renovation and restoration of the Bodie Island Lighthouse and its magnificent and original first-order Fresnel lens.
Going forward, we might expect that when Murray leaves, assistant superintendent Darrell Echols will be named acting superintendent until a successor is chosen.
And that person will take over the seashore management with a challenge every bit as difficult as Murray’s was.
Healing for this community will be a long time in coming.