U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., today reintroduced a bill in the House of Representatives that seeks to overturn both the National Park Service’s final rule for off-road vehicles on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and a court-approved consent decree that settled a lawsuit filed against the Park Service by environmental groups.
The Preserving Access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act would return management of seashore resources to the Interim Protected Species Management Strategy and Environmental Assessment, issued by the Park Service on June 13, 2007.
The bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation on Thursday, March 14.
H.R. 819 is identical to H.R. 4094, which Congressman Jones introduced in the last Congress. That bill passed the House of Representatives, but the Senate version failed to make it out of committee.
“This bill is about jobs and the taxpayers’ right to access the recreational areas they own,” said Jones. “It’s about restoring balance and common sense to Park Service management. I would like to thank the Natural Resources Committee for scheduling a hearing and for doing what is right for the people of Eastern North Carolina.”
H.R. 819 specifies that the Secretary of the Department of the Interior cannot impose additional restrictions on pedestrian or motorized access to the seashore other than those specified in the interim strategy or specifically authorized by the legislation.
Any additional restrictions, the bill says, must be based on peer-reviewed science and be open to public comment.
Additional restrictions are allowed only to protect species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and they must restrict recreational activities for the least possible time on the smallest possible portions of the beach.
Restrictions for endangered species must not be greater than restrictions in effect for that species at any other national seashore.
And, finally, to the maximum extent possible, the secretary must designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors of minimal distance around any additional restricted areas to allow access to areas that are not closed.
The legislation specifies that the interim plan will remain in effect until the secretary issues a new final rule that meets the requirements on restrictions set forth in the bill.
H.R. 819 is supported by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance (CHAPA), a grassroots organization committed to balancing recreational access with resource management.
CHAPA filed a lawsuit last February in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenging the final plan and regulation, mostly on the basis that the process was flawed. That lawsuit has been transferred to the Eastern District of North Carolina and was assigned to Federal Court Judge Terrence Boyle.
The 2007 Interim Protected Species Management Plan and Environmental Assessment was a publicly vetted plan for managing the seashore until an ORV plan and final rule were written.
At the time, the Park Service envisioned that the details of that plan would be worked out by seashore stakeholders in a negotiated rulemaking committee.
However, before that committee officially began its work and just months after the publication of the interim plan, a lawsuit was filed against the Park Service by Defenders of Wildlife and National Audubon Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The lawsuit claimed that the Park Service was allowing ORV use on the seashore without a plan and rule, which are required by law, and that the interim plan did not adequately protect nesting shorebirds and turtles.
Dare and Hyde counties and CHAPA were allowed by the court to enter the case as defendant-intervenors.
Boyle was also the judge in that case, and he made it clear that he considered that without a plan, ORVs were operating illegally on the seashore and that he was prepared to stop vehicle use on the beaches.
After that, in April, 2008, all parties to the lawsuit signed off on a consent decree that modified the interim plan to include much larger closures and protections for birds and turtles than had been used by the Park Service in the past.
The seashore was to operate under the terms of the consent decree until there was a final plan and regulation.
The negotiated rulemaking committee ended its work in the winter of 2009 without reaching a consensus on the details of the final plan.
The Park Service then began the work of developing an Environmental Impact Statement and final ORV plan and special regulation with several public comment periods along the way.
That final regulation was published in January 2012 and became effective on Feb. 15, 2012.
The consent decree was set to expire when the final rule became effective on Feb. 15, and attorneys for CHAPA and the intervenors think it has, Boyle has continued to have status conferences on the decree — three in the past 12 months.
The park continues to operate under the ORV plan and final rule as the CHAPA case proceeds.
This is Jones’ fourth attempt to overturn the consent decree through legislation.
In June, 2008, he introduced a bill in the House to return the seashore’s management to the interim plan. A bill was concurrently introduced in the Senate by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and then Sen. Elizabeth Dole, also a Republican.
That bill had hearing in a Senate committee and a House subcommittee and died when the Senate committee refused to send the bill to the floor for a vote.
Jones introduced his bill again in January, 2009. It was referred to committee, where no action was ever taken.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read H.R. 819, introduced today by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones
The Interim Protected Species Management Strategy is available on the park planning website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=358&projectID=13331&documentID=19796
Other articles on the effort by the Park Service to formulate an ORV plan and final rule can be found on the Island Free Press website. Go to the bottom of the Front Page, click on the Archives bar. From there, you can look for past stories by year on the Beach Access and Park Issues Page.