Cape Hatteras Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray said yesterday at a meeting with reporters that the National Park Service received 31,000 public comments on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for off-road vehicle rulemaking.
He said about 15,000 of those comments sent by individuals have been accepted by the Park Service and are being catalogued and organized.
Another 16,000 comments, he said, were not accepted, mostly because they were considered bulk e-mails or comments submitted through a third party.
The ground rules for submitting public comment were clear.
The rules stated that comments would not be accepted by fax, e-mail, or in any other way than those specified. They went on to say that bulk comments in any format (hard copy or electronic) submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.
In other words, no comments would be accepted if submitted by a third party.
Murray said most of the e-mails thrown out were submitted by organizations or groups that asked supporters to ?submit your comments to us and we will submit them en masse.?
Murray would not name any of the organizations. He did say that the 16,000 e-mails came from ?a very few organizations.?
Obviously, that means that some group or groups out there sent a big bunch of third-party e-mails.
The superintendent has said since the DEIS was issued in early March that he and other Park Service personnel could not comment on any of the specifics until the Final Environmental Impact statement is released in the fall.
At that time all comments will be public and will be addressed by the NPS.
Murray would say only that there were ?many comments? that supported a less restrictive option than Alternative F, the Park Service?s preferred alternative, and ?many comments? that supported a more restrictive approach.
The next step in the process should be the publication of the Park Service?s proposed rule for ORV regulation.
The release of the proposed rule is targeted for fall, and its publication will set in motion another 60-day public comment period. That will be the last opportunity for the public to comment on the future of beach access on the seashore.
There will be no public comment period when the FEIS is released, also scheduled for the fall.
The proposed rule, Murray said, will reference the Environmental Impact Statement. However, he said, the focus of the rule will be the regulatory language that is directly related to ORV use. Resource management issues, such as buffers, will be addressed only in the EIS. The proposed rule will address such ORV-specific issues as night driving.
The regulation of pets, horses, beach fires, and kites already exists in the superintendent?s compendium of seashore rules. They will not be in the special rule.
?If the final decision is to change any of the existing restrictions on those non-ORV issues,? Murray said, ?it would be done by revising the compendium.?
The proposed rule, Murray said, is being drafted and must undergo ?different layers? of review, including the federal Office of Management and Budget, which has 60 to 90 days to comment.
It seems strange to some that the rule is being drafted before the Park Service can digest public comments on the DEIS. No says, says Murray, noting that the rule will address ORV-specific regulations only, will be based on the preferred Alternative F, and will be put out for 60 days of public comment.
The publication of the FEIS is followed by a 30-day waiting period before a record of decision is issued.
The next step will be the final ORV regulation (based on the proposed rule after public comment). That is also followed by a 30-day waiting period, which is not a public comment opportunity. It is to notify those who are affected by the regulations.
Murray emphasized that the record of decision is the final decision on the Environmental Impact Statement, while the final rule is the final decision on ORV regulation.
The consent decree, signed off on by a federal judge on April 30, 2008 to settle the lawsuit against NPS by environmental groups, specifies that the record of decision must be issued by Dec. 31, and the final regulation published by April 1 of next year.
Where the beach access issues goes from there is a big question mark.
There is an assumption among access advocates ? and some others — that the attempt at ORV rulemaking will end in the federal courts. In fact, it is beginning to look like both sides on the issue ? pro-access groups and environmental groups ? will sue over whatever is the National Park Service?s final rule.
Right now, the Park Service?s preferred alternative is not restrictive enough for environmental groups and too restrictive for access proponents.
Murray himself said recently about the EIS and regulation in National Parks Traveler magazine that he thinks?it?s likely to result in litigation.?
Yesterday, Murray likened the situation somewhat to the struggle in Yellowstone National Park, where he was assigned from 1992 until 1997, over the regulation of snowmobiles.
In both cases, he said, ?People have quite contrasting visions of managing the park.?
Those regulations at Yellowstone, he said, have been in continuous litigation since 1997. That is 13 years.
Now that is a sobering thought.