The end of April is here, and Cape Point is still open for off-road vehicle access, which is something new and different.
At least since the National Park Service’s ORV plan for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore became final in 2012, the Point has been closed down to ORV access in early April — and has stayed closed into August or even September.
Now under buffer rules that were modified by the Park Service last summer, seashore officials are allowed to provide an ORV corridor through American oystercatcher nesting activity very near the Point.
And under the new rules, the corridor can stay in place until a nest, if it is established, hatches — which could take up to another month.
Michelle Havens, the seashore’s chief of natural resources, said today that two pairs of oystercatchers are now attempting to nest near the corridor. Neither has established a nest, she said, but one may be close.
If the birds nest in the areas they’ve been checking out, the corridor will remain in place until there are chicks on the ground — another four or five weeks, which would take us almost to Memorial Day.
There is also an ORV corridor for nesting oystercatchers at South Point on Ocracoke, which is a popular fishing and recreation site on that island. The South Point birds, Havens said, have established a nest and the corridor did not have to be adjusted. It will remain in place until there are chicks on the ground.
This is a good thing for advocates of more reasonable public access for ORVs and pedestrians to the seashore’s beaches.
The buffer modifications are a direct result to legislation passed by Congress in late 2014. However, implementing the changes asked for by lawmakers was a monumental task with a deadline.
And the seashore’s new superintendent, David Hallac, who had arrived for his new job about the time the legislation was passed, and his staff have done an admirable job of meeting those deadlines. They are still working on some parts of the legislation that will change the final rule, but so far, so good.
Other things have changed since Hallac’s arrival. Chief among them is a cautiously more positive attitude toward seashore managers and their staff.
I hear positive comments about Hallac many places I go these days — at public meetings, such as the Dare County Board of Commissioners, or in conversations with friends or news sources.
People like him. Some even think he can make a difference here. And this new attitude extends not just to the superintendent but to his staff.
Don’t misunderstand — it’s not possible to completely erase many of the ill feelings that developed between the park and the community of residents and regular visitors during the past decade or so. The effort to formulate an off-road vehicle plan was contentious — and even ugly — at times. The slate can’t be wiped clean overnight.
The new ORV rules have not only curtailed access but have affected the businesses of some islanders, and there’s no way to roll back the regulations to what we had 20 or 30 — or even 10 years ago. Legally, it’s just not possible.
However, I think many of us see Dave Hallac’s arrival and the changes he has brought to seashore management as an opportunity to move forward — or at least stop dwelling on the past.
Hallac has the right personality for the job — he’s smart, funny, outgoing. He visited the seashore as a youngster and learned to surf. He’s an avid fisherman. He and his wife and their four young children like to do all the things other families do at the beach. They like to camp and spent a week last summer at the Park Service’s Ocracoke Campground. If all goes right, they plan to cook their Thanksgiving dinner at Cape Point Campground before it closes at the end of November.
But, more importantly, Hallac has made clear his commitment to transparency in his administration of the park and has made communication with the public a priority — not just for himself but for all of the park staff members.
Sometimes, he seems to be everywhere. He’s a frequent visitor to Hatteras Island, attends meetings that other superintendents haven’t or attends them more frequently — the Dare County Board of Commissioners, the Dare County Tourism Board, the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association. He tours the beach with users, stakeholder groups, and reporters.
He answers phone calls and emails — from everyone and anyone, as far as I can tell. He meets in his office in Manteo with folks who ask. He asks others to come and meet with him if he thinks a meeting will be useful.
In some cases, he has not accepted the status quo. A good example of this is the flooding situation in the Cape Point area in Buxton after really heavy storms and rains. This has been an issue since 2004 when the Park Service stopped digging a ditch to drain the stormwater into the ocean after it received a violation notice from the state.
As far as any of us can tell, Hallac is the first superintendent in the past 12 years to try to resolve the problem. He tracked down correspondence, which just ended with the state asking for a stormwater drainage plan and the seashore apparently never providing one.
The seashore did confer with the state and submit a plan over the winter, but the state has not accepted it, so resolving the problem is going to be more difficult than it first seemed. Many seashore users are unhappy that the problem has lingered for so long that there is apparently no quick fix.
So, what has Hallac done? He’s invited all of those folks to a meeting on Monday, May 2, from 5 until 6:30 p.m. in Room 307 at Cape Hatteras Secondary School in Buxton.
Well, actually, Hallac says the meeting isn’t just about the Cape Point flooding issue issue, though he says he will update those who attend on what he knows and answer all questions the best he can.
The meeting he says is for people who aren’t comfortable picking up the phone and calling him or stopping by his office in Manteo.
“I have a lot of opportunities to meet with stakeholder groups or to speak at public meetings,” Hallac says. But, he adds that he has had on his mind for some time scheduling a “listening” session, if you will, where folks can come in, sit down with him and his staff and just ask questions at an informal setting.
Hallac has also taken a great deal of interest in the history of the geology and hydrology of the Cape Point area. In his discussions with users and stakeholder groups about the flooding, everyone was interested in historic photos of the area and what information they might contain for today’s seashore managers.
So he had the seashore staff scan and upload historic photos and make them available to the public.
“It’s amazing to see how much the area has changed,” Hallac said in an email. “Look at how close the campground was to the south beach in the late ’50s. Not to mention that there was literally nothing there at the south beach.”
He added that “You can also tease out when the campground was first built and when the drainage ditch behind the campground was dug out.” And photos from the ’70s show the dredge pond being constructed.
The photos are available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/capehatterasnps/albums/72157667440659811.
Under Hallac’s leadership, the seashore staff has made some changes in how it gets information to the public that I personally really like.
Much of it involves the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Facebook Page, which is much improved and is available to anyone online — you do not have to join Facebook to get on the page.
Pinned to the top of the page is a new Ramp Status Report that is updated daily and is the best way for seashore users — on foot and in vehicles — to check on which ramps are open and which are not. If they are not open, you will find out why — whether it be resource protection or tidal flooding.
If you don’t want to go to Facebook, the daily ramp reports and the weekly natural resources field summary and table of miles open and closed on the seashore are still available on The Island Free Press. Go to the home page, scroll down, click on the Beach Access and Park Issues Page. The reports can be seen by clicking on them in the dark blue bar at the top of the Beach Access page.
There have also been other changes, including an effort to sell more ORV permits online to make it easier and less expensive for the park and more convenient for the visitors.
I guess the bottom line is that many people feel that Hallac is a good listener who is open to new ideas and responsive to almost all requests.
He’s not going to fix everything we want fixed because he can’t.
Groups that advocate for more reasonable public access — such as the Outer Banks Preservation Association, the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, and the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club — will keep holding the Park Service’s feet to the fire when it comes to public access.
That is as it should be.
We should hold managers of the seashore accountable, demand that they be transparent, and give us all the information we need to be responsible users.
However, I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness or capitulation to admit that things at the seashore are better for all of us than they have been in a good while.
If you have something you want to talk to Hallac about, go to his May 2 meeting. Or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can call him at 252-475-9030.
The superintendent also discussed seashore news and issues, on my Radio Hatteras interview show, “To the Point,” earlier this month. You can click here to read about the interview and listen to an audio.