These late March weeks promise to be quiet ones on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Pre-nesting closures for some birds are already up, and park staff members are reportedly busy working on the seashore’s response to legislation passed by Congress in late December.
The seashore’s new superintendent, Dave Hallac, has promised public meetings in mid-April to preview how exactly the seashore will respond to Congress’ demand that the Park Service take a new look at buffer distances around bird and turtle nests and, in some cases, provide access though areas closed for resource protection.
So I will take the opportunity in this week’s blog to catch up with some seashore issues that I’ve written about in the past and to pass on a few bits of news.
CIRCLE OF STONES
The story of the so-called “circle of stones” has now come full circle, so to speak. Though the circle is now a semi-circle, this is apparently a case of all’s well that ends well.
The circle of stones refers to the large granite blocks carved from the original foundation of the 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999 when the National Park Service moved it to its new location to save it from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean.
These heavy stones — the lightest weighs 3,000 pounds — were arranged in a circle to mark the historic site of the lighthouse. The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society paid about $12,000 to have the stones engraved with the names of the keepers of both the 1803 and 1870 lighthouses.
The stones were unveiled on May 5, 2001, during a reunion of the descendants of the lightkeepers, sponsored by the Lighthouse Society, and the Park Service?s re-dedication of the Cape Hatteras Light Station.
Over the years, the circle of stones became a site for tourists to visit and for locals to gather. The circle was the site of weddings, memorial services, and even some christenings. It was a place of great historic and sentimental significance for both islanders and visitors.
However, as the years passed, the stones were increasingly tossed around by big waves and covered with sand during hurricanes and northeasters. The stones were almost entirely covered by sand by Super-storm Sandy and several northeasters in late 2012.
Two years ago, in the spring of 2013, the Park Service announced that it was no longer practical to keep uncovering and rearranging the stones after each storm.
In a letter to the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society in May 2013, then-seashore superintendent Barclay Trimble said, ?Because of coastal processes, namely shoreline erosion and dune migration, the stones have routinely become covered with sand requiring substantial effort to keep them uncovered.?
Trimble asked for the Lighthouse Society?s input on two alternatives.
One would be to leave the stones covered and in place, which ?would provide an opportunity to interpret coastal processes.? However, Trimble warned the time would come when the entire circle will be inaccessible for viewing ? presumably because it would be under water.
The other alternative that the superintendent proposed was transferring the stones to another organization, such as the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village, which has a Cape Hatteras Lighthouse exhibit, including the original first-order Fresnel lens.
The Lighthouse Society told Trimble that neither alternative was acceptable. Members didn’t want the site underwater, but neither did they want it down the road from the historic Light Station. They wanted to keep the stones together and near the lighthouse.
Many islanders and lighthouse lovers far and near also objected to the Park Service proposals for the stones.
However, Bett Padgett, who was then president of the group, said that the Lighthouse Society wanted to work with the Park Service on a solution that would work for all.
The two groups were talking about another solution but nothing happened and the situation got only worse at the site of the Circle of Stones.
Siding with the society was the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society, many of whose members are descendants of lightkeepers, including its president Dawn Taylor. In late 2013,Taylor posted a change.org petition on her group?s website, also opposing the Park Service?s previously announced plan for the stones.
She sent the petition to U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., in late December 2013, and Jones then wrote a letter to Trimble.
?As I know you understand,? Jones wrote, ?Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an enormously important piece of Eastern North Carolina?s heritage. Preserving the foundation stones, which bear the names of the lighthouse keepers, is essential.?
In his January 2014 reply, Trimble basically said the seashore did not have the funds to maintain the stones.
?At a time when the country, the NPS, and the seashore are experiencing significant budgetary constraints, the NPS must evaluate the best use of its limited funds,? Trimble wrote. ?Continuing to maintain the stones, as well as other facilities and providing necessary services have become problematic due to budgetary reductions.?
Meanwhile, Cheryl Roberts, a founding member of the Lighthouse Society, found some old e-mails with park officials about the future of the granite stones.
Padgett said that in the correspondence, the park ?would commit that when the time came, it would move the stones closer to the lighthouse and use them as an
amphitheater to interpret coastal processes.”
In February of last year, Trimble met with Padgett, Catherine Jordan, director of outreach for Jones? office, and Dawn Taylor and the vice-president of her group, Jennifer Farrow Creech, at the circle of stones.
At that meeting, Trimble agreed to undercover the stones one last time, load them on a flatbed truck, and move them to the Park Service’s maintenance area, where they could be cleaned up. All of that was accomplished last spring.
The Park Service and the two preservation societies also agreed to work together on where the stones would be relocated and how they would be arranged.
And now that has happened.
Last month, an area on the Light Station grounds near the pavilion and along the path the lighthouse was moved in 1999 was cleared and covered with crushed stone and shells, and the stones were set in a semi-circle to form an amphitheater.
The new superintendent Hallac says that the amphitheater will be used for, among other things, interpretive programs.
A dedication of the new site is planned for later in the spring.
Padgett said this week that she hasn’t visited the new site of the stones yet, but she has seen photos.
“From the photos and from what I’ve heard people say, it’s outstanding,” she said. “It’s going to be so nice, a wonderful tribute (to the lightkeepers).
“I had no idea it was going to be such a large undertaking,” she added.
It remains to be seen whether the new location will become a beloved place for weddings or memorial services or other special commemorations.
However, it’s good that the Park Service and the community came together to solve a problem in a way that seemingly can work for all.
It took the intervention of two preservation groups and a U.S. Congressman, but the Park Service listened.
THE FRISCO PIER
The Park Service is not moving very quickly on another issue with an island landmark.
The Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier, known to almost all as the Frisco Pier, has been part of the island landscape and the island experience for locals and visitors for more than 50 years.
Today, the old wooden structure is bloodied and bowed from its many battles with an angry Atlantic Ocean during hurricanes and northeasters, but, to the amazement of many, it refuses to fall into the sea. It is still a favorite subject of photographers with its big sections missing, decking buckled, and pilings akimbo.
The pier was built in 1962 and had a series of owners over the years. Island natives Tod and Angie Gaskill bought it after it was badly damaged by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. They said they wanted to save the island landmark, the only fishing pier on southern Hatteras Island.
They fixed it up and were back in business, but the storms continued to batter the structure. The last season the pier was open for business was seven years ago in 2008. The Gaskills could no longer afford to keep repairing it and they hoped that the community or the Park Service might buy it, fix it, and keep it open.
After several years of negotiating with the owners, the Park Service did buy what was left of the structure in September 2013 for $160,000. By then, the beat-up pier was an eyesore and a public safety hazard.
The Park Service said in the fall of 2013 that it would shortly announce a schedule for demolishing the pier.
That’s been a year and a half ago, and the pier is still there — still a threat in every coastal storm.
On one hand, it’s become extremely unsightly. On the other hand, it’s become an even more powerful magnet for photographers during storms. I guess you have to admire the old pier for continuing to hang on against the onslaught of giant, storm-driven waves.
Beachgoers sit under the pier house in the summer to get out of the sun. Surfers flock to the shorebreak it creates before and after storms. Anglers gather there to try their luck at the fish that hang around the underwater pilings.
“It’s more complicated than you think to remove a structure like that,” seashore superintendent Dave Hallac said last month.
The Park Service has completed a survey of the pilings that must be removed, but has not moved forward with taking down the pier or pier house.
Hallac said that it will be demolished in the coming year. The pier house, perhaps, can be taken down by the seashore’s maintenance staff, but a contractor will have to be hired to remove the rest of the structure.
It may be fun to watch the Frisco Pier stand up to a stormy surf, but the fact is that if the structure collapses, it will be a great threat to lives and property.
It’s well past time to take it down. Maybe it will really happen this year.
ORV PERMITS ONLINE
This year, the Park Service is not only offering off-road vehicle permits online but encouraging Internet purchases.
The first two years — 2012 and 2013 — that permits were required, they could be bought only in person at three locations on the seashore. For the first time, an online option was offered for 2014 permits.
Now, the seashore is promoting online purchases to lower the cost of issuing the permits.
“We don’t want to remove the convenience factor,” seashore superintendent Hallac said last month.
However, he said by increasing and centralizing sales online, the Park Service can save money on collecting the permit fees — funds that can be used for programs and construction projects.
The three permit offices — at Coquina Beach, the Cape Hatteras Light Station in Buxton, and Ocracoke — will continue to be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
However, for a $4.50 processing fee, you can purchase your permit online and have it shipped directly to you.
I tried it this year, and it’s easy and fast.
I don’t live far from the permit office and have never had to wait there, especially in the winter when I buy my permit, but this year I decided to try the online option. I was unusually busy in January and the weather was unusually nasty. Seemed like a good idea.
I went online to www.recreation.gov, completed the application, and watched the obligatory 7-minute video. (Well, I mostly watched the video.) The whole process took 10 minutes.
Three days later, the permit was delivered to my house by FedEx.
I wouldn’t suggest you expect it that quickly if you have a vacation planned, but the online experience was extremely easy and convenient.
Seashore superintendent Hallac has promised that a reprioritized list of new maintenance projects planned as part of the ORV management plan will be available soon online.
The legislation passed by Congress in December instructs the Park Service to move ahead expeditiously with the projects that include new ramps, parking areas, and access roads.
This week, park officials said they were still working on the reprioritized list of projects and will post it as soon as it is available.
The park also reports that work is underway on the parking area at the new access Ramp 25 that was completed late last summer. The ramp is expected to remain open during the parking lot construction, which should be completed before summer.