Darrell Echols, deputy superintendent of the Outer Banks Group, which includes the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, has headed to the Park Service?s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta.
He will be the Southeast Region?s chief of science and natural resources. His last day on the Outer Banks was last Friday.
For almost six years, he?s been the deputy here at Cape Hatteras ? the guy in charge of the nuts-and-bolts operation of the park. He has managed the daily operations, staff, budget, and projects of the Group.
As with most positions that have a title such as ?deputy? or ?assistant,? he was not always the public face of the seashore ? that job fell to his bosses, former superintendent Mike Murray and now Murray?s replacement, Barclay Trimble.
However, Echols had a calm demeanor and a ?can-do? attitude that did win him respect among many islanders who have been at odds with the National Park Service over the new off-road vehicle plan and other issues.
Some of those folks are sorry to see him leave. Among them are reporters on the Outer Banks who know they could call Echols at just about any hour and get a prompt response on questions about budget, programs, and other park operations.
A native of south Texas with a bachelor?s degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, Echols came to the Outer Banks from Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, where he was chief of science and natural resources for that park.
Last week, on the eve of his departure, Echols answered some final questions about ongoing operations on the seashore.
Here is a summary of that conversation
THE FRISCO PIER
Echols said the Park Service has completed its purchase of the Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier in Frisco, including the pier, pier house, parking lot, and entrance road.
NPS bought the property, which has been badly damaged from storms and closed for several years, from islanders Tod and Angie Gaskill, who own Top Dollar Construction, for about $160,000.
The Park Service intends to raze the pier and pier house and turn the area into a public beach access.
Sand has already been removed from the parking lot, Echols said, and NPS staff will be filling pot holes in the access road, perhaps as early as this week.
Funding, he said, has been set aside for removing the badly damaged pier. According to the contract with NPS, Gaskill will have the first chance to bid on the pier removal.
After some comments from surfers and anglers who loved even the damaged pier for the good offshore sandbar and fishing it provided, park officials have decided not to remove the pier entirely. Instead, Echols said they will remove all decking and pilings above the water, leaving whatever base pilings are in good enough shape to continue to preserve the good fishing and shorebreak.
The remaining pilings would extend out of the ocean, so they would be visible to all who use the area.
The National Park Service released its Environmental Assessment (EA) on its proposal to facilitate additional public beach access at the Cape Hatteras Seashore in late June 2013.
The additional public access improvements are called for in the Park Service?s off-road vehicle management plan and final rule, which became effective in February of 2012.
The EA evaluates the impacts of projects at 29 development locations that include 15 parking areas, one paved access road, two unpaved roads, five ORV ramps, five foot paths, and 11 handicapped accessible boardwalks.
Last summer, there were public meetings and the park received public comments on the proposed improvements.
Echols said that now the park is moving forward with implementing the first projects.
A contract has been awarded for a ramp and boardwalk about the new Ramp 25.5 between Salvo and Avon. Work will start the middle of February and be finished in April.
There will also be a parking area at that new ramp, but that contract has not been awarded yet.
Also slated for this year are contracts for the new Ramp 32.5, also between Avon and Salvo, where a ramp, boardwalk and parking lot will be constructed.
In addition, Echols said he expects work will start in the next six weeks on Ramp 49 in Frisco. That work will be done by in-house heavy-equipment operators. The ramp often is congested in the summer with vehicles coming on and off of it. When a vehicle gets stuck, the result is often a traffic jam. The park plans to have separate on and off lanes on that ramp to help with the problem.
Also on the short list is the interdunal road between Ramp 45 in Buxton and Ramp 49 at Frisco.
Up next will be parking at Ramp 23, a new Ramp 59.5 on northern Ocracoke, and an elevation of the roadway between Ramp 43 in Buxton and the Ranger Station, which is often flooded in heavy rains.
Echols said that Ramp 2.5 on Bodie Island will be done by the N.C. Department of Transportation as part of the Bonner Bridge replacement project, which is now stalled by lawsuits.
Those projects, the park hopes, will be completed in the next two years.
The others will take more time, which is what seashore officials have said from the beginning ? that all the projects cannot be funded at one time.
The projects are being paid for by ORV beach-driving permits.
BUDGET WOES AND CUTBACKS
Echols said the park still is facing an 8 percent decrease in its operating budget.
Even though Congress has now passed a budget and a continuing resolution, he said he has not heard anything that would indicate that the 8 percent reduction would change.
The result is that the Outer Banks Group will have more than a $900,000 decrease from fiscal year 2012.
The Park Service will not fill some permanent positions and will reduce the number of seasonal employees and some other services.
And it will also end lifeguarded beaches in the seashore, which sees several drownings each year because of rip currents and rough ocean conditions here.
The program costs $215,000 a year, Echols said, and the Park Service has tried to look at alternatives ? fewer days of operation of lifeguarded beaches and reduced hours ? but has not found an affordable solution.
The park cannot use ORV permit monies to fund the lifeguards, he said.
In Echols? new assignment, he will be supervising resource management in more than 60 parks in the Southeast Region. Fifteen permanent staff members ? biologists, ecologists, and wetlands scientists ? will report to him, along with a staff of four in plant management.
He will represent the Southeast Region parks on committees, projects, and task forces that oversee such diverse topics as climate change, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and oil and gas and wind energy.
Echols said last week, ?I have really enjoyed the Outer Banks. In many respects, it?s a lot like Texas.?
He sounds genuinely sorry to leave the area and says his two children will miss the beach and the recreation opportunities here. His wife and children will stay on the Outer Banks until the end of the school year.
He says that he will especially miss the islanders he has worked closely with on many projects.
In the next few years, seashore officials will be looking at the first opportunity to make changes in the ORV plan and final rule. That comes after five years in 2017.
We can hope that having someone in the Southeast Regional Office who has been an on-the-ground, hands-on presence here for six years might provide the Park Service some insights that will help us tweak the 2012 plan.
We?ll stay in touch with him.
Click here to read a news story about Darrell Echols? departure from the seashore.
Click here to read a blog on the sale of the Frisco Pier to the Park Service.
Click here to read an article about infrastructure improvements.
Click here to read a blog about infrastructure improvements.
Click here to read about the U.S. budget and Park Service cutbacks.