Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac had a media roundtable discussion with reporters last week that covered a number of topics and ended with a tour of a new infrastructure project that the park is rightly quite proud of.
We met with Hallac and several key members of his staff at the Principal Lightkeeper’s Quarters in Buxton on Wednesday, the day after the seashore released the final version of its wildlife buffer modifications, which it was required to do under legislation passed last December in Congress.
The changes are aimed at opening up more public access — for ORVs and pedestrians — during the nesting season for shorebirds and sea turtles.
The new buffer distances modify buffers for nesting for every species of birds and turtles currently protected on the seashore — some more than others. A fact that some of us find ironic is that buffers for the federally protected piping plover are being altered more than those for other birds, which are listed only as species of special concern to the state.
For example, buffers for colonial waterbirds — black skimmers, common terns and gull-billed terns — are being reduced from 200 meters for ORVs and pedestrians to only 180, which won’t make much of a difference for access. However, with additional and more intensive monitoring of chicks, buffers for unfledged piping plovers can be reduced from 1,000 meters to as few as 500 — and down to 250 with an ORV corridor in some circumstances.
The park may be able to implement some of these changes — for example, the addition of monitored “corridors” in front of sea turtle nests — by this fall. However, all of the changes will not happen until next year’s nesting season because the park must hire additional staff members for monitoring.
The plan is not everything that advocates for more reasonable public access wanted with the modifications. However, most agree — sometimes grudgingly — that the changes are a start.
“The changes in turtle protection protocols…should have a noticeable overall positive impact on access,” said David Scarborough, a board member of the Outer Banks Preservation Association.
“I was glad to see the addition of the ‘option of last resort’ to relocate a turtle nest if it is laid directly in front of or adjacent to a ramp,” he added. “While I don?t expect it will occur often, when it does, it will make a big difference.”
“The ability of the NPS to move a sea turtle nest if it would close a ramp is huge and making such a change as a result of public comment is just short of unheard of for Manteo,” noted Larry Hardham, president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club.
Scarborough noted that the biggest issue remaining to be addressed on turtle nesting is the ?-mile nighttime buffer after Sept. 15. “We will continue to press NPS on this issue for the future.”
He also said that, in his view, the option to relocate a turtle nest was “the only major change” between the proposal and the final document, although some processes, such as chick buffers moving with the chicks rather than simple buffer expansion, were clarified in the final document.
OBPA and other access groups remained concerned that the buffer reductions for nesting shorebirds are not significant enough and continue to provide too much protection to species that are not federally listed as threatened or endangered. The state’s Wildlife Resources Commission recommended smaller buffers in some cases for some species.
“The reduced buffers for piping plovers may be positive, but we will not know for sure until we see how and when NPS implements the new procedures,” Scarborough said. “The smaller buffer for American oystercatcher nests should extend spring access to the Point by perhaps 30 days which is good, but access after the eggs hatch will not change, which is bad.
“The smaller buffers for colonial waterbirds,” he added “are not likely to provide any significant increase in access compared to what has been experienced over the past six years. CWB impact will continue to be entirely dependent on where the nests/colonies occur.
Hallac has been quick to note that the modifications won’t guarantee increased access on
all ORV routes all throughout the nesting season, but this more adaptive management approach will give park officials more leeway to allow for such measures as corridors and bypasses around nests.
And let’s get the most asked question out of the way first. Readers continue to e-mail Island Free Press to ask, “Is Cape Point open now because of the new plan?”
The answer is “No.” Cape Point is not open now to pedestrians or vehicles and probably won’t be — perhaps ever again — in the mid-summer months. There are just too many species of birds that like to nest there.
Currently, according to Randy Swilling, the park’s natural resources manager, there are three American oystercatcher nests, one piping plover nest, and scattered colonial waterbirds nests in the Cape Point area.
With different species of birds nesting in the same area and overlapping buffers, it’s very difficult to provide access.
“We are definitely trying to find ways we can implement (the new buffers) this year,” Swilling said.
“We understand the beaches that people want to see open, and we’re working to get them open,” he added.
Park officials all say that it will be more likely that the adjusted buffers will provide more access to more ORV routes early in the nesting season — April into May — and later in the season — late August through fall when turtle nests are hatching.
For instance, Cape Point was closed to ORVs this year on April 7 because of an American oystercatcher nest that was located between Ramp 44 and the Point. The nest closed the beach from the dunes to the waterline.
Under the modifications, the ORV route to the Point would have remained open for several more weeks. The nest was 75 meters from the high-tide line, and, under the new plan, seashore officials could have provided an ORV corridor through the area at the waterline.
“Mid-summer is going to be the most challenging,” Hallac said.
“We will be watching closely over the next few months,” Scarborough said
MORE SEASHORE NEWS
In other news from the media roundtable discussion:
- Later this summer, Hallac says that seashore officials will begin a public process to consider modifications to the 2012 final rule on ORV management, which is also mandated by the legislation. These include changes to the final rule related to morning openings of beaches, the time periods open for use of seasonal off road vehicle routes, and the size and location of vehicle free areas.
Hallac said he plans to start a new program of science workshops that will be open to the public. The workshops would bring in scientists to review the park’s plan for managing various species of wildlife.
The workshops, he said, “would improve our ability to tease out factors” in the management plan, in addition to human activity, that affect nesting success.”
Hallac said he would like to start the workshops in the coming year, but it might take two years to get the program underway. He sees the workshops as “meshing” with the five-year review of the ORV management plan in 2017.
- The number of ORV permits is up over last year by 20 percent — or about $1.4 million compared to $1.1 million in 2014.
- The number of park visitors who climb the lighthouse is 30 percent more than last year.
- Use of all campgrounds has increased since the seashore campgrounds at Frisco, Cape Point, and Oregon Inlet were added to the NPS recreation website, www.recreation.gov, so visitors can make reservations. Previously, reservations could be made only for the Ocracoke campground.
- Also, Cape Point campground was filled for Memorial Day weekend for the first time in seven years.
- The seashore continues to encourage people to buy their ORV permits online. Cutting costs for selling the permits, Hallac said, allows the park to have more funds for infrastructure improvement, wildlife research, and other projects to improve vehicle access.
NEW INTERDUNAL ROAD
After the media roundtable ended, the group reconvened at the parking lot at Billy Mitchell airport for a tour of the new interdunal road. Stakeholders from several access groups were also invited along, and we all piled into four-wheel-drive vehicles to see the progress that has been made on the project.
Under the legislation passed by Congress last December, the Park Service was also required to speed up its proposed projects to improve ORV access. At the top of a list of five projects that have been fast-tracked is the interdunal road, an off-road vehicle route that will run behind the sand dunes and will connect Ramp 45 in Buxton and Ramp 49 in Frisco.
When it is completed, vehicles will be able to travel behind the dunes on the new road from the Cape Point area to the Frisco beach, bypassing a vehicle-free area and seasonal resource closures that block ORV access between the two points.
Since the seashore’s ORV plan became effective in February 2012, vehicles traveling between Frisco and Cape Point have had to exit the park and travel along Highway 12.
As part of the project, a new ramp will be constructed approximately a mile east of Ramp 49 in Frisco. The new Ramp 48 will allow ORV access to the South Beach at Frisco when turtle nests reaching their hatching window cause a resource closure near Ramp 49.
For the past several years, one or more sea turtles have nested high on the beach just east of Ramp 49. When the resource closures are expanded all the way to the ocean at hatching time, there is no way for ORVs to travel behind the nests, and, therefore, there is no access to more than a mile of beach that remains open to vehicles.
The relatively wide, flat Frisco beach is popular with local and vacationing families in the summer, with anglers in the spring, fall, and winter, and with walkers, joggers, and shell collectors year round.
For all of these reasons, the interdunal road has been a high priority for users of the seashore and for advocates for more public access.
Park Service maintenance staff members started work on the new road in mid-May and have completed a mile of it — to the new Ramp 48, which has been started.
Our group traveled the new road out to the site of the new ramp. Along the way, we passed in front of the Frisco Campground, where old boardwalks to the beach have been torn down and replaced with new ones that mesh with the interdunal road.
At the new Ramp 48, we got out to survey the work and hear what remains to be done from the seashore’s chief of maintenance, John Kowlok. Heavy equipment operator Doug Blackmon, who is leading the construction on the site, and Hatteras Maintenance Supervisor Shelly Rollinson were also on hand to answer questions.
Kowlok said most of the construction of the new ramp is being done “in-house” at a cost of about $500,000. Most of the money is coming from ORV permit fees with about 10-15 percent of the cost of labor from the seashore’s base funding.
“It’s not like we’re building a highway through here,” Kowlok said. “We’re trying to keep it as primitive as possible.”
Heavy equipment is plowing through the vegetation to cut the road, and the road will be reinforced with a mixture of clay and shell mixture at its intersection with ramps and where pedestrians must cross near the campground. Timbers will be used at the “Hatteras-style” ramp, which will also be hardened by the mixture and timbers.
Although a lot of progress has been made on the road in the first month, Kowlok said the projected completion date is November because the crew must wait for materials that will take a while to be delivered — about 100 dump-truck loads of clay and 40 loads of crushed shells.
Once the road to Ramp 48 and the ramp are completed, the crew will move on to finish the next three miles to Ramp 45 in Buxton. That second phase of the project should be completed in late January or early February. An interdunal road already connects Ramp 45 with Ramp 44 — the main Ramp to Cape Point.
The other new construction projects that have been fast-tracked include a 10-car parking lot at Ramp 25, which was completed in May, a new Ramp 32 at Little Kinnakeet between Salvo and Avon, and a new Ramp 63 across from Scrag Cedar Road on Ocracoke.
Kowlok said that construction is about to begin at Ramp 32, and the project should be completed in late November. The cost for the ramp, a foot trail, and parking will be about $475,000.
The Park Service, he said, is advertising for bids for Ramp 63, which he hopes will be under construction in about three months.
The folks from stakeholders groups who took the interdunal road tour seemed impressed.
“I think this project will add a lot of value, both by providing an additional access point in case resource closures occur between Ramp 49 and the new ramp, and by providing a route to get from Ramp 44 to the South Beach without having to go back to Highway 12,” Scarborough of OBPA said. “I am most pleased that NPS is doing the work with local staff which will keep the costs to a more reasonable level.”
“Certainly the re-prioritizing of construction projects funded with ORV permit revenue…has been appreciated by the access community,” said Larry Hardham. “I think that without this re-prioritizing, this project would not have started for several years, and NPS is doing the work on this road with current staff at a much more palatable cost than what was spent at Ramp 25.5.”