You may agree with the actions he takes or the direction in which he takes the seashore – or you may not. Some think Murray is held hostage by the Department of Interior solicitors who have more to say than he does about the management of the seashore – especially after environmental groups filed a lawsuit over off-road vehicle access on the seashore in 2007.
But the fact remains that this man is accessible by phone and by e-mail, really seems to endorse transparency in park actions, and has remained calm and patient despite all the grief that has come his way since he took over as superintendent in December, 2005. Indeed, he has been squeezed by ORV access groups, environmental groups, lawyers, business people, residents, and who knows who else, and he always remains poised, answering questions – some quite ill-informed -- with respect and as much detail as he can.
Granted that this is his job, but I think, he is good for the seashore.
Murray has been meeting with local reporters in “media roundtables” since the beginning of his administration in the park. We meet about three or four times a year. Sometimes he calls us to meet, and sometimes we call him to remind him it’s time to meet.
Sometimes, there’s a lot on his agenda and on ours. Sometimes, not.
Murray brings along various seashore staff, depending on his agenda and the questions we let him know we will ask.
Cyndy Holda, his administrative assistant and the park’s community liaison, always attends. Often he brings the assistant superintendent – now Darrell Nichols – who is the day-to-day management person on budgets and other matters. Sometimes he bring the park’s natural resources staff.
Last week, he brought Holda; Paul Stevens, who has been a law enforcement ranger for the Outer Banks Group since 1989 and was recently named chief ranger, and Dennis McGuiness, an Outer Banks native who is the new seashore maintenance chief.
Our meeting with Murray last week was one of the shortest yet – just an hour and 10 minutes.
On the agenda were recent modifications in the court-ordered consent decree, the timeline for the development of an Environmental Impact Statement and an ORV rule for the seashore, and a flurry of maintenance projects now underway or about to get underway in the park.
On the modifications, Murray addressed the change in consent decree language to specify that after Sept. 15, the remaining unhatched sea turtle nests will require a full beach closure, prohibiting through access, only from sunset until 6 a.m. Last year, the unhatched nests got full beach closures 24 hours a day.
Murray said it was unlikely that his staff could handle changing the closures twice a day for all of the nests that haven’t hatched. Last year there were about 36.
“The benefit,” he said, “is that in mid-September when the nests haven’t hatched but it’s the height of the fall surf fishing season,” park staff can provide daytime access at popular surf fishing areas – such as the Points and spits.
The modifications to the consent decree also addressed the penalties for intentional violations of pre-nesting areas or buffers. The Park Service will not be required to expand a buffer for vandalism if the violator is apprehended, either by the work of the Park Service law enforcement staff or through information from the public. If the buffer has been expanded and then the violator is caught, the Park Service can retract the expansion.
The impetus behind this change is to spur the public to report what they know about the violators.
Stevens said there were six intentional violations last year, and there have been three this year. All but one involved damage to stakes and symbolic fencing. In one case, a least tern egg was crushed.
There are no leads in any of the cases, Stevens said.
The Park Service is working with Dare County Crime Line on all violations on the seashore, including Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County. One reason, Stevens said, that the park hooked up with Crime Line is that people were calling who wanted to donate funds for rewards.
“Rather than us reinventing the wheel,” he said, “we decided to go with Crime Line.
Also, he said, some people want to report information but don’t want to come forward. The public can report information to Crime Line anonymously and still receive a reward if the crime is solved.
If you have any information on violations, you can contact Dare County Crime Line at 473-3111 or 1-800-745-2736.
Murray and Stevens also said that the park is in the process of organizing a program that would be like a “beach watch,” manned by citizen volunteers, who would be stationed at key ramps and would be the Park Service’s “eyes and ears” for nighttime violators as well as problems during the day.
They said they expect to ask for volunteers and conduct training sessions in the fall.
Stevens also noted that for the first time in some years, the Park Service law enforcement contingent is fully staffed. That includes five law enforcement rangers in the Bodie Island District, seven on Hatteras, and four on Ocracoke. There are three positions at park headquarters, including Stevens’ former position, which is not filled. He hopes to fill it with a ranger who would specialize in wildland wildfire management.
McGuiness updated reporters on the progress of the projects now underway or about to be underway in the park. They include such things as rehabilitating the Ocracoke Lighthouse, restoring the Bodie Island Lighthouse Lens, repairing fences at the Ocracoke Pony Pens, and installing new picnic tables and grills at all of the campgrounds and the Salvo Day Use Area.
The $2.6 million in funds for the projects, which will be completed this summer and fall, come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the National Park Service (NPS), and Eastern National.
Murray also summarized the timeline for completing an Environmental Impact Statement and issuing a rule on ORV management on the seashore.
This is what he said:
A contractor is now doing an impact analysis, evaluating the five alternatives – alternatives A through E -- already proposed by the park and perhaps a sixth alternative F, which the negotiated rulemaking committee failed to reach agreement on. This analysis, he said, will be “the guts of the EIS.”
It will address all issues from wildlife and resource protection to socio-economic impacts and recreation to costs.
Murray said the deadline for receiving the analysis is “fluid” but he hopes it will be finished this summer.
Next the Park Service will discuss the alternatives internally – at local, regional, and national levels -- and choose its preferred alternative and the environmentally preferred alternative, which, Murray said, could be the same or different.
He said he is aiming for the release of a draft EIS in late fall. There will be a 60-day public comment period, including public meetings on the Outer Banks and in other cities, such as Raleigh, Richmond, and Washington, D.C.
The Park Service will also have to submit the preferred alternative to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a biological opinion.
Finally, there will be a record of decision issued, which Murray said would have a 30-day public comment period.
This is an ambitious timetable.
The consent decree requires that the ORV management plan be completed by Dec. 31, 2010 and promulgated by special regulation by April 1, 2011.
The federal bureaucracy doesn’t work this quickly as a rule and certainly did not when it came to deciding to use the negotiated rulemaking process and implementing it. That process dragged on for several years.
I hope Mike Murray has the attention of his superiors in Washington to get this EIS and rulemaking on the fast track.
If I were Mike Murray or any of his bosses in D.C., I would not want to appear before federal district court Judge Terrence W. Boyle and tell him why it couldn’t be done on time – after all these years.