The National Parks Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources had a hearing last week on Senate Bill 486, which would overturn the off-road vehicle management plan at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Under the legislation, which was introduced last month by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., off-road vehicles would be managed under the seashore’s Interim Management Plan until Park Service officials present a new final plan that allows more reasonable access to the beaches.
For whatever reason, the National Park Service had a new administration witness at this hearing. At past hearings, Herbert Frost, associate director of natural resource stewardship and science for the Department of Interior, had presented testimony for the department and the NPS.
This time around, we heard from Peggy O’Dell, deputy director of operations for the Park Service.
The message was the same as it has been when previous legislation with the same goal was pending in the House or Senate.
The Department of Interior and National Park Service “strongly oppose” this bill. As Frost had before her, O’Dell declared that the ORV plan was a great success in increasing shorebird and sea turtle nesting and it had not hurt the local economy.
Neither one of those statements is entirely true, but I won’t dwell on that in this blog.
I’d like to move on to what O’Dell told Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., when he questioned her.
Heinrich said he is interested in preserving hunting and fishing rights on federal lands and asked specifically how much of the seashore beach remained open for fishing.
“People can fish anywhere,” O’Dell told him with a straight face.
That answer is, at best, misinformed, and, at worst, an outright untruth.
The truth of the situation is that you cannot fish anywhere you want at anytime you want. Large stretches of the beach, especially some of the premier fishing areas, are closed about four months during the nesting season – not only to ORVs by also to pedestrians. Or those areas might be not be officially closed but you can’t get there by ORV – or by walking unless you want to wade in breaking waves, which is only for the young and strong when you are carrying fishing tackle, coolers, and bait.
Her statement went unchallenged at the hearing, but will not remain unchallenged.
The hearing record is open for two more weeks and groups that favor more reasonable access will be weighing in with more information on why they oppose the plan. And the Outer Banks Preservation Association President John Couch is urging all residents and visitors who oppose the plan to contact their senators before Wednesday, May 8.
A bill to overturn the ORV plan passed in the House last year, but failed to get out of committee in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
At Tuesday’s hearing, subcommittee chairman, Mark Udall, noted that all of the 13 bills that were being considered, except one, were also heard by the full Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year, though none was “marked up” or sent to the full Senate for a vote.
He seemed to indicate that he would like to move the legislation forward this year.
The full committee which must “mark up” the bill has 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
At least two Democrats will have to vote in favor to get S 486 reported out of committee.
Those of us who favor more reasonable beach access have one Democrat squarely in our corner – Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin beat up the Park Service pretty well at a hearing last year on an identical Senate bill.
The senator has a very important connection to the seashore that is one of those “small world” stories.
Manchin was a good friend of another West Virginia politician, one who left state politics to move to Ocracoke Island in 1991, where he and his wife built one of the island’s most successful businesses – Howard’s Pub and Raw Bar.
That West Virginian was the late George Blackburn Warner Jr., known to all as Buffy.
Manchin is a Democrat and Buffy was a Republican, but the two became friends during the 1980s in the West Virginia Senate where they both served, and that may explain Manchin’s singling out last year’s bill for its bipartisan support from both the Republican and Democratic senators from North Carolina.
“They were extremely close, and they worked really well across the aisle,” said Buffy’s widow, Ann, who worked for West Virginia state government in economic development.
“Our family and his have remained friends,” she said. “Joe and his family have been visiting the Outer Banks, and especially Ocracoke, for the last 20 years.”
Manchin recalled some of those visits when he spoke earlier this week with local beach access advocates who were in Washington for the Tuesday hearing.
The local folks – David Scarborough, John Couch, and Jim Keene – arrived Monday and met with aides for Burr and Hagan.
At the end of the afternoon, on a whim, they decided to stop by Manchin’s office, figuring they might get to talk to one of his aides.
Instead, they got a meeting with the senator that lasted about 30 minutes.
“He told us stories of fishing in the Ocracoke tournament and the Anglers Club tournament,” Scarborough said.
And he vowed to become a co-sponsor of S 486 and to appear at the next day’s subcommittee hearing, where he grilled the Park Service’s O’Dell about the details of the ORV plan and the park’s relationship with the local community.
Manchin is a powerful ally because he “gets it.” He knows the seashore and knows the subtleties of the plan that other lawmakers don’t.
“He’s intimately familiar with what’s been available (to ORVs and pedestrians) and how it’s been traditionally used,” noted Scarborough.
When Peggy O’Dell says you can fish anywhere on the seashore beaches, Manchin knows that’s not true.
But that message must reach other senators, especially Democrats, for the bill to be successful.
Outer Banks Preservation Association President, John Couch, today sent an e-mail to members, urging them to contact their senators – even if they have weighed in on past bills.
It must be done again, he said, by May 8.
Beach access advocates and Dare County officials who were in Washington for the hearing were also passing out a packet of materials, prepared by OBPA, which really brings home the meaning of the closures under the ORV plan.
Besides talking points about the bill, maps, and comparison charts, the package includes a series of photos and captions, showing access restrictions in a dramatic way on one day -- July 31 of last year during the peak of the nesting closures.
This blog contains a link to that package for the information of our readers and to help them with talking points when they contact their lawmakers in Washington.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read the testimony of the National Park Service’s Peggy O’Dell at Senate subcommittee hearing.
Click here to see the package of information that OBPA and CHAPA are passing out to lawmakers.
Members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee are listed at http://www.energy.senate.gov
You can contact the senators using one or more of the following methods:
- Some Senators have public email addresses but most require the use of contact forms managed through their websites. A directory of Senator e-mail addresses does not exist, but online contact forms can be accessed using the following links.
- http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm is a directory of all U.S. Senators with links provided for contact forms for each Senator.
- http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact-form is a contact form for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
U.S. Mail (slowest):
- Use the following address and reference S. 486:
The Honorable (Name)
Energy and Natural Resources Committee (not required if addressing a senator not on the committee)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Senator (Name);
- Find phone number on the Senator's website, or call the United States Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and a switchboard operator will connect you.