Ocracoke residents and business owners are concerned that the National Park Service’s policy manual says: “the protection of human life is the highest priority,” and are asking them to live up to that value and to continue full funding of lifeguards at the public beach.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Barclay Trimble confirmed today that while he is exploring contracting with an outside service to have lifeguards on duty for five days a week, “no funding is in place for any lifeguards.”
“It’s all subject to negotiations,” he said.
In addition, Trimble has told Dare and Hyde counties, that the park will provide lifeguards for seven days, if local governments or other interested group pony up an extra $10,000 per beach.
For Ocracoke to join in such a partnership, Occupancy Tax Board (OTB) funds would have to be approved by the Hyde County commissioners. The OTB is scheduled to ask for this at the April 7 meeting in Swan Quarter starting at 6 p.m., Wayne Clark, chairman of the OTB, confirmed. Ocracoke residents may attend the meetings via satellite hookup in the Commons Room of the Ocracoke School.
Hyde County manager Bill Rich said representatives from the offices of Rep. Walter Jones and Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan will attend this commissioners’ meeting.
Dare County manager Bobby Outten said the county had received the same offer from the Park Service – that it would provide only five days of lifeguards in the seashore, but others could partner with the park to get seven days by contributing $10,000. He said he had just received the information, and the Dare commissioners have not yet discussed it.
In recent years, there have been only three lifeguarded beaches – at Coquina Beach, Buxton, and Ocracoke.
The lifeguard debate began after Trimble announced in November that owing to reduced budgets, lifeguards would be eliminated on the three beaches in the seashore.
In his January letter to the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association (OCBA), he said the seashore has lost $1 million in annual operating funds since 2010.
“Funding for seasonal hires has declined by two thirds,” he said. “This includes interpretive rangers, law-enforcement rangers, seasonal maintenance workers and lifeguards.”
Income from off-road vehicle permits to drive on the beach is for “beach access” and cannot be used for lifeguards because of “legal requirements on how those funds can be spent,” Trimble said in a January letter to the OCBA. The cost of having lifeguards at Ocracoke, Bodie and Hatteras Islands is “over $200,000,” his letter said.
Trimble further clarified on March 27 that of the two million visitors who come to the seashore, “less than 10 percent use the lifeguard beaches,” he said. “Over 90 percent don’t use the lifeguard beaches.”
Jim Keene of Nags Head, who is president of the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association that has worked with the NPS for 50 years, has been in letter-writing and personal talks with Trimble about this.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Keene said about his quest to obtain the CHNS accounting for the ORV permit program and the elimination of lifeguard funding. “The whole process is disturbing. We have a recreational area and then tell people they’re on their own.”
While this issue is up in the air, Ocracoke business owners are vocal that they do not want the beach to be unguarded.
“Business owners and residents are definitely concerned,” said Kari Styron, rental manager at Ocracoke Island Realty. “It be a good public relations thing for the Park Service to (use the ORV permit money to hire lifeguards) and tell people that.”
“Beach access is beach safety, which should mean lifeguards,” noted Rudy Austin, OCBA president.
Hyde County commissioner John Fletcher of Ocracoke says Ocracoke should not cave in to the Park Service and that the idea of Ocracoke donating $10,000 is “ridiculous.”
“We don’t have to capitulate,” he said in an interview. “They won’t take the risk. If something happens (on the days when there are no lifeguards), the fallout from publicity would be devastating to the Park Service.”
Everyone he runs into at the Ocracoke Post Office tells him not to give in, he said.
“They have the money,” Fletcher said. “If we ever start down that road, it’s hard to get off it,” he said about giving money to the Park Service. “I’ve always been willing to take a risk with government because they always come through in the end.”
The OCBA began a petition to restore lifeguards. To sign it, Google “Ocracoke petition to save lifeguards” and go to the Facebook page.