in early May, a reporter for Audubon Magazine contacted the Outer Banks Preservation Association by e-mail. The reporter, Anna Sanders, wanted to interview someone from OBPA about the beach access situation at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
OBPA board members decided to pass on the invitation, both because of a pending lawsuit against the National Park Service over the final off-road vehicle plan and regulation and because, well, advocates for more reasonable beach access just don’t trust the environmental groups that have been involved in this issue.
On May 15, Sanders posted a message on my May 4 blog, again trying to find folks to interview for her article.
“Hi all,” her chatty post read. “My name is Anna Sanders and I’m a reporter with Audubon. I’m working on a story about Cape Hatteras right now and would love to hear everyone’s insight into the National Park Service’s ruling, Rep. Jones’ bill, the Burr-Hagan bill, or the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance’s civil suit against the DOI, NPS, and others. Please send me an email if you would like to comment on Cape Hatteras and ORV use, whether or not you support unregulated ORVs on the shore. If you email me and would like to speak over the phone instead, I can give you a call.”
I and others answered her post, noting that no one – or certainly not many people – supports “unregulated” ORVs on the seashore.
“Just to clarify,” she answered, “I meant ‘unregulated’ in the sense that the interim plan that was in place was only a draft and not finalized. Before the final ruling, there were regulations, per say, but not final ones…I understand this is a very contentious issue, but I am trying to represent all sides”
I gave her the benefit of the doubt and urged Carol Busbey, co-owner of Natural Art Surf Shop,” who had been answering Sanders on the blog, to contact her for an interview. I really hated to see no one coming forward on this issue.
Carol seemed like a good person to speak for more reasonable access. She’s not a hothead, but a reasonable, smart woman. She’s not a member of OBPA and not a beach driver.
She and her husband, Scott, have lived on Hatteras permanently since 1977 when they opened their shop in Buxton.
She’s old enough to remember when environmental activists had a good name and considered herself one of them in the past.
And, most importantly, the Busbey shop has taken a beating since the 2008 consent decree greatly decreased the amount of beach open for access, especially around the popular area of Cape Point and the Hook. The die-hard surfers, who made quick trips to Hatteras when they heard surf was good, just don’t bother anymore. Her weekend business has taken a real beating.
It’s a small business, but the Busbeys worked hard and had a nice income and a comfortable life on the island.
Well, Busbey did contact Sanders and was interviewed for the article and now we both are sorry.
The Audubon Magazine article, posted online on Tuesday, makes no attempt to portray both sides of the issue. It is propaganda, pure and simple.
It’s nothing more than an expansion of the media releases, regularly sent out from Audubon and its partners, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Now you would expect that a media release from an environmental group would be aimed at furthering its agenda, increasing its membership, and getting more donations.
But, here was an article that the writer had said would tell both sides.
The headline on the article gives a hint of what is to come – “A New Rule Balances Wildlife and Off-Road-Vehicle Use on a North Carolina Beach.”
The article begins like this:
“Five years ago tire tracks carved by recreational off-road vehicles traced a path of destruction over dead birds and demolished eggs. Today least tern chicks, nesting loggerhead sea turtles, and piping plovers are flourishing at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore.”
Now that’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks, so to speak.
A path of destruction? Dead birds and demolished eggs? Five years ago in the seashore?
The next sentences are:
"After a legal battle waged by Audubon North Carolina and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Park Service issued a new rule put into effect this past February that allows ORV access in certain areas within the seashore while also protecting sea turtles and birds. Yet despite this initial compromise, pending congressional legislation and civil litigation could negate the park service’s ruling, threatening bird species, other wildlife, and plants on the shore.”
The article goes on to declare victory on all the usual fronts with the stuff you are used to hearing from Audubon and friends – nesting success is terrific, visitation is up, the economy of Dare County is thriving.
I have written before about how some of these things are partially true, but none is totally true, so I won’t go back over all that.
The article goes on to say that bills in Congress and a lawsuit are threatening all that the environmental groups have worked so hard for.
It even quotes the infamous Ted Williams, an Audubon field editor who writes his own propaganda that mischaracterizes ORV users on the seashore.
This time, Williams gets in another good shot with a quote that urges readers “to consider all Americans for all time, not the immediate appetites of a few loud, greedy ORV operators.”
After her 15 minute interview, Carol Busbey – the other side -- was dismissed with one paragraph at the end of the article that makes her sound like a whiny business owner and does nothing to portray her passion for the island traditions and lifestyle that are being lost to this new regulation.
Busbey got an advance copy of the article to “fact check” the part that quotes her.
She says she wanted to throw up when she started reading it.
She eventually replied to the editor who sent her the draft that she thought the story was not balanced and would like her quotes removed.
The magazine declined, as it has every right to do, since Busbey freely contacted them.
“She must not have been listening to me,” Busbey said about the reporter.
She says she doesn’t mind that she got involved, but she is even more disillusioned about environmental groups.
“I used to donate to one of them,” she says, declining to be specific. “I will never, ever do that again.”
I was appalled also by this lack of any pretense of balance in the story.
There were other misstatements, including this comment on the legislation and lawsuit.
“Both are designed to abolish the regulation and return to prior management measure under which protected species had declined.”
The legislation and the lawsuit would both overturn the final plan and rule, but both order the Secretary of the Department of Interior and the director of the National Park Service to go back to the drawing board and devise a more balanced rule.
However, I couldn’t get that first sentence out of my mind – the one about the mass destruction of chicks and eggs by ORVs.
I e-mailed the writer and the editor, Julie Leibach.
This was Leibach’s response:
“Thanks for writing. We fact check our articles, and I was the fact checker for this piece. I verified this information with Walker Golder, Audubon North Carolina's deputy director. I'm copying Susan Cosier, the story's editor, so that she's in the loop.”
I was speechless.
Audubon Magazine fact checks statements about chick mortality at the seashore with the state deputy director of Audubon, one of the groups that sued the Park Service.
Now that’s really appalling.
When I contacted seashore superintendent Mike Murray about dead chicks and smashed eggs at the seashore, he directed me to Volume I, Chapter 3 of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, released in November.
The chapter deals with, among other things, federally listed protected species at the seashore – piping plovers and sea turtles – and state-listed species of special concern.
He further directed me to the parts of the chapter about human activity and those species.
The relevant pages are 226-228 for piping plovers, 236-239 for sea turtles, 250-252 for American oystercatchers, and 261-263 for colonial waterbirds.
If you read those chapters, you will find that some chicks and turtle hatchlings have been run over and some eggs smashed by ORVs since the seashore staff has been tracking these things in the 1990s.
But the discussion hardly paints a picture of wonton destruction by beach drivers.
In fact, except for the very publicized death of the nesting loggerhead sea turtle that was run over in 2010 by an ORV operating illegally on the beach at night on Ocracoke, one least tern egg squashed during an illegal foray into a closure in 2008, and four turtle eggs crushed in 2007, there have been few chick or hatchling deaths by ORV since 2005.
Here are a few highlights:
No deaths of piping plover chicks or destruction of eggs are documented. There have been cases of illegal entry into bird and turtle closures, more often in recent years by pedestrians than vehicles.
There is the case of the death of the nesting loggerhead in 2010 and the four eggs smashed in 2007. Also, in 2004, 10 hatchlings were killed by ORVs in two separate incidents.
Three oystercatcher chicks were crushed by ORVs in 1995. Three more were killed during the 2003 breeding season. Also, a 2008 report by North Carolina State University mentions two three-day old chicks died of exposure and predation after being abandoned by their parents that were disturbed by an ORV after dark.
In the 2003 breeding season, four least tern chicks on Hatteras and 10 black skimmer chicks were found dead or dying in ORV tracks. Several colonial waterbird chicks were killed by vehicles in 2001 and six in 2002. And there was the one least tern egg squashed by on ORV operating illegally in a closure in 2008.
Electronic copies of the FEIS are available online at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=358&projectID=10641&documentID=37448