On Dec. 21, the National Park Service published in the Federal Register its final changes to the off-road vehicle rule for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that became effective five years ago next month — in February 2012.
Three of the changes addressed areas that Congress mandated the Park Service to re-examine in its final rule — the morning opening of the beaches, the dates for seasonally open ORV routes, and the size and location of vehicle-free areas (VFAs).
Park officials added of their own accord issues that they thought should also be addressed — and that they thought the public wanted addressed. Those included ORV permit durations and ORV access, especially access to soundside areas on Ocracoke and Cape Point.
An environmental process — including a formal environmental assessment document and public meetings — was necessary for the process of making the changes.
The process started in August of 2015 and ended with the Federal Register publication. The rules will be effective about Jan. 20.
You can find the details of the changes on the on the Beach Access and Park Issues Page.
Here I want to talk about getting to Cape Point, which involves the size and location of the VFAs — which have turned out to be one of the most controversial parts of the ORV rules.
There is a VFA south of Cape Point which prohibits ORVs from driving there from Ramp 48 or 49 in Frisco or the old Ramp 45 at the back of the Cape Point Campground.
In other words, if the northern ORV route to the Point is impassable from ocean overwash or beach erosion, drivers can no longer get to the area from the south.
I should note that this is not a late spring and summer problem since the VFA area is a favorite of nesting shorebirds and turtles and is closed for most of that time. It is especially a problem in the non -nesting season when the area might otherwise be open if it were not a vehicle-free area.
The northern ORV routes from Ramps 43 and 44 in Buxton have been under assault from the ocean this fall and winter, perhaps worse than in the past few years but it’s been a long-time problem.
At times, it’s been both difficult and dangerous for folks trying to reach Cape Point, a favorite fishing, shelling, and gathering place on Hatteras.
There is a short “bypass” route that takes traffic around the back of the primary dune — but it has needed for some time to be extended when there is serious beach erosion between the Buxton ramps and the Point.
The original environmental assessment presented by the Park Service called for an extension of the bypass road approximately one-quarter mile to the north to Ramp 44, so vehicles can travel from the ramp much of the distance to the Point behind the overwash area.
However, seashore superintendent David Hallac says that the erosion has worsened in the area and park officials took another look after the public process– and decided to add another 600 feet to the bypass road — extending it to the south of the Salt Pond at the Narrows. The seashore calls it a “minor modification.”
This extension is noted on Page 3 of the FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) document that was signed just before the rule changes were published.
I did not notice the change when I was writing my Dec. 20 story for the Island Free Press. In fact, I did not notice it until Hallac pointed it out to me.
Here is what the FONSI says:
“Based on the analysis presented in the EA, the NPS has selected alternative 2 for
implementation, with one minor modification. Alternative 2 (hereinafter referred to as the
selected alternative) was identified in the EA as the NPS preferred alternative and is described below and on pages 33-42 of the EA. The minor modification to the selected alternative consists of an approximately 600-foot extension to the bypass route at Cape Point, south of the Salt Pond at the narrows behind the overwash dunes. The NPS?s public process brought to light concerns regarding access to Cape Point during the non-nesting season, with many commenters requesting an alternative route that would begin near old Ramp 45 or Salt Pond Road and traverse the south beach eastward towards Cape Point. The NPS considered this request for use during the non-nesting season, when beach erosion may preclude vehicle and pedestrian access to Cape Point from Ramps 43 and 44, and therefore is including an extension of the existing bypass route south of Ramp 44 as part of the selected alternative. The bypass route extension should provide a continuous alternative route to Cape Point from Ramp 44 that may be used when erosion or a beach closure may otherwise preclude travel to the south during the non-nesting season.”
In other words, the bypass route will be longer and take drivers further to the south toward the Point.
The Park Service also notes:
“Although this southern extension was not originally part of the preferred alternative in the EA, impacts associated with this proposed 600-foot extension will be similar in nature to those disclosed in the EA for the 0.4-mile extension to the north. There would be no measurable or observable impacts to federally- or state-listed species, special status species, or non-listed shorebirds associated with the 600-foot bypass route extension and no wetlands would be impacted.”
It’s not exactly what most ORV users would like — they want a route from the south through or behind the VFA or Salt Pond or whatever it takes.
That is not going to happen now, but Hallac also notes Paragraph 3 on Page 3, which says:
“Seashore staff will evaluate the use of this bypass extension as an effective alternate access route to Cape Point. If the extended bypass road is unable, as intended, to generally provide alternate access to Cape Point when beach erosion and high tides may preclude travel, the NPS may initiate a new planning process to evaluate other alternate routes to reach Cape Point when such conditions exist.”
Now, folks are going to be quick to criticize this plan. And, yes, a new planning process will take a while. It won’t happen overnight.
However, consider that these final rules changes took basically 16 months from the first public scoping meeting in August 2015 until they were published Dec. 21, 2016.
It strikes me as a good thing that the park is recognizing there may be more to do to keep Cape Point accessible.
Hallac says it’s a recognition of adaptive management and changing conditions in the seashore.
“The National Park Service is committed to adaptively managing the seashore for changing conditions,” he says. “And if there is one thing I have learned in my two years here is that things are always changing.”
I think it’s worth noting the modifications to the changes and giving the seashore some credit for making them.