By JOY CRIST
Night owls and early birds taking a stroll along a Hatteras Island beach may encounter more than just the neighborhood sandpipers, seashells, and other visitors who appreciate having the shoreline almost all to themselves.
More and more beach-goers, mostly in front of the villages, are leaving behind canopies, tent stands, and other gear on the beaches overnight, or even for a full week — a cause for concern and not only for sightseers who prefer an unobstructed view.
“From what my staff tells me it’s [happening] more than what it has been in previous years,” says Joseph M. Darling, Hatteras Island District Ranger for the National Park Service. “The frequency is definitely increasing.”
And while on the surface it may seem like there’s nothing wrong with “camping out” for a week, leaving beach gear behind can potentially cause a world of problems for wildlife, other visitors, emergency vehicles, and the equipment owners themselves.
The issue of leaving unattended beach gear on the shoreline is not a new one for the Outer Banks.
For years, the town of Nags Head struggled with a constant line of metallic frames left standing for days at a time – an occurrence that was generally attributed to visitors “staking a claim” on a prime piece of beach real estate in an often crowded stretch of seashore.
On one particular day in August 2014, Nags Head town officials counted roughly 300 frames of tents and beach canopies dotting the shoreline, and soon took action to put a stop to the practice, which included removing the structures in the summer of 2016.
Granted, on Hatteras Island, the problem is less prevalent, and most visitors aren’t leaving canopies or tent stakes behind in an effort to save their spot, like visitors do in more crowded coastal communities. Most of the time, beach gear is left simply as a convenience, as dismantling and lugging along a tent on a daily basis can be a little tiresome on a hot summer day.
However, regulations on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore also prohibit the temporary abandonment of canopies and other structures.
According to Section 36 CFR 2.22 of the seashore’s laws and policies, “the placement of unattended property on the beach, such as, but not limited to chairs, toys, umbrellas, canopies, coolers, etc. is prohibited between sunset and sunrise.”
According to the same section’s justification, “This restriction ensures the safety and enjoyment of the beach by all users and is consistent with local ordinances in nearby towns. Chairs, umbrellas, canopies, coolers, etc. can be harmful to people and wildlife. People walking at night, public safety personnel who may have to drive on the beach at night, sea turtles that must make their way to nesting areas and hatchlings to the water to survive depend on safe and obstruction free beach conditions.”
Darling expands on the argument against leaving items behind, pointing out the potential dangers for wildlife, people and equipment owners.
“Sea turtles are still nesting right now,” he says, “and a [tent or canopy] could block access and prevent them from nesting where they want to. They could also get tangled up in the lines that are tied to canopies or tents, or even get tangled in a lawn chair or other equipment.”
Pedestrians out for a nighttime stroll can stumble over equipment left behind on the dark beaches, and law enforcement or EMS personnel, who may have reason to drive on the beach at night, can also find it a hazard to safe passage.
Also, the equipment itself can be vandalized or just succumb to the elements.
“Two very common things are happening right now,” says Darling. “Sand and salt is getting into the [mechanisms] of the canopies, and people aren’t able to take them down or close them up easily. In addition, we’ve gotten a few reports of theft. The NPS has gotten calls about canopies or beach chairs that people thought we had, but which were, in fact, stolen.”
The Park Service will tag beach gear left overnight and will remove it when resources allow, and park staff members are also tagging and removing broken tent frames and other equipment that has been left behind or which is piled up next to trash cans on the beach — another growing problem along the seashore.
“We’re out there on a daily basis tagging them and removing them,” says Darling.
Darling also notes that instead of leaving broken beach gear behind, owners – or former owners – should move the discarded equipment to a local dumpster or properly-sized receptacle, like the one near Ramp 44 to Cape Point in Buxton.
“We’re encouraging people to get them off the beach every day if they leave, and if they are broken, take them to the dumpsters,” says Darling.
On the Avon beaches, the Avon Property Owners Association (APOA) has sponsored a beach trash collection program for a number of years.
As an added convenience, the contractor collects all abandoned beach equipment, under a permit issued by the Park Service. Anzolut says that in June and July of this year, APOA collected 85 tent frames, 167 beach umbrellas, and 262 broken beach chairs — along with more than 1,000 bags of trash.