The National Park Service said today that it will publish some changes to the final rule on off-road vehicles in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Federal Register tomorrow — on Dec. 21.
The changes are the final step in requirements that Congress mandated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015. The legislation required that the seashore modify wildlife protection buffers, accelerate the construction of vehicle access points and roads, report back to Congress within one year of the date of the NDAA, and undertake a public process to consider changes to the final rule on ORV management.
Wildlife protection buffers were modified in June 2015, all vehicle access points were constructed, and a report to Congress was finalized before the end of December 2015.
The Park Service has been working on the final part of the requirements –the change in the rule.
Specifically, the legislation required the seashore to consider three specific changes:
The seashore published an Environmental Assessment in February 2016. That document can be found here. The environmental assessment included a preferred alternative that described proposed changes and impacts of those alternatives, to the seashore’s final rule for ORV management.
However, special regulations are required to change existing regulations for ORV use on National Park Service lands. The final rule largely describes the technical details that are required to implement the Seashore’s preferred alternative.
The Park Service had public scoping meetings before the EA was developed and after it was presented to the public.
Also, proposed changes to the final rule were published in the Federal Register in August.
Yesterday, the NPS published a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on its proposed changes.
The next step is to publish the final changes to the final rule in the Federal Register.
Here are the highlights.
BEACH OPENING TIMES
Most ORV routes would continue to open at 7 a.m., as they now do under the ORV rule. Certain “priority” beach routes could be opened earlier than 7 a.m., though no earlier than 6 a.m.
Priority routes, the Park Service said, were chosen by their proximity to villages and popularity with users. They would include Ramps 2, 4, 25, 27, 43, 44, 48, 49, 70 and 72. NPS resource staff would patrol these priority routes before opening so that park resources would be protected even while earlier access is allowed.
The NPS is proposing to amend the special regulation to state “no earlier than 6 a.m.” instead of stating a specific time in the regulation. Instead beach opening times would be published annually in the Superintendent’s Compendium.
The Superintendent’s Compendium is a summary of regulations that pertain specifically to the administration of the park, such as areas closed for public use and activities that require special permits, that are up to the discretion of the superintendent and do not require going through the federal rulemaking process.
This process will give the superintendent more flexibility over beach opening times without having to go through the cumbersome and lengthy federal rulemaking process each time.
SEASONAL ORV ROUTES
Under the proposed rule, seasonal ORV routes in front of the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Frisco, and Hatteras and the Ocracoke Campground would be expanded by two weeks in the spring and fall. Under the new rule, these seasonal routes would be open from Oct. 15 through April 14
Currently, they are open from Nov. 1 through March 31.
The proposed rule would modify the size and location of vehicle-free areas and improve access in some locations.
The proposed Ramps 2.5 on Bodie Island and 59.5 on Ocracoke would not be constructed. Ramp 2 would be restored to ORV use, extending the existing ORV route by a half-mile to the north and providing ORV access to the route from either Ramp 4 or Ramp 2. Ramp 59 would continue to be open to ORV use, extending the existing year-round ORV route about a half-mile.
The seasonal ORV route at Ramp 34 would be extended 1 mile to the north into what is now a vehicle-free area. And the seasonal route at Ramp 23 would be extended 1.5 miles to the south into what is a vehicle-free area.
According to the proposed rule, “The NPS proposes making these changes to these particular VFAs because it would slightly increase ORV access on each of the islands without measurably impacting visitor experience, safety, sensitive wildlife species, or workload complexity of park staff.”
The change at Ramp 23 is especially important to residents of and visitors to the tri-villages, where ORV access is limited in the summer months.
Many wanted to see changes to the VFA south of Cape Point, in the area of the Hook, which is not in the proposal.
The Park Service is proposing to remove the specific times established for the duration of ORV permits from the special regulation and instead control the duration of the permits through the Superintendent’s Compendium.
This means that any future changes to the duration would require the proper compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but would not require going through the more complicated rulemaking process.
In choosing Alternative 2, the Park Service would change year-round permits from being valid for the calendar year to being valid from the day they are issued — a change that has long been asked for by beach drivers.
The current 7-day permit would be changed to a 10-day permit, which, the NPS says, could allow many users to access the beaches over two weekends.
OCRACOKE ACCESS IMPROVEMENTS
The proposed rule would remove the ORV route designation from Devil Shoals Road, also know as Dump Station Road. This is an existing dirt road located across Highway 12 from the Ocracoke Campground.
This road would be designated a park road and no ORV permit would be required for driving on it.
The NPS says it proposed these changes to allow for limited vehicular soundside access on Ocracoke Island without the requirement of an ORV permit, since there is currently no soundside vehicular access areas on Ocracoke as there are on the other seashore islands.
HATTERAS ISLAND ACCESS IMPROVEMENT
The proposed rule would extend the existing Cape Point bypass route south of Ramp 44 by four-tenths of a mile to the north so it will join with Ramp 44. NPS also proposes extending the existing bypass approximately 600 feet to the south.
The Park Service proposes extending the bypass to provide additional access to Cape Point when the ORV route along the beach is closed for safety or resource protection.
Although the southern extension was not originally part of the Environmental Assessment, impacts associated with the bypass route extension would be negligible at most and would have no impact on wetlands.
The rulemaking process does not provide for a public comment period for a final rule.
The final rule will be effective in no fewer than 30 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register. The seashore intends to implement most changes, other than those that require construction, prior to the 2017 summer season.
For full details on the Final Rule, go to the Federal Register at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/12/21/2016-30735/special-regulations-areas-of-the-national-park-system-cape-hatteras-national-seashore—-off-road (Document #: 2016-3035). To view the FONSI, go to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=358&projectID=59571&documentID=76714.