Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Summary

Accessibility is one of the biggest issues facing anglers and sportsmen in North Carolina. Off-road vehicles (ORVs), particularly in North Carolina’s storied Outer Banks, remain the primary means for sportsmen and women to access public-trust resources and surf fishing opportunities. Unfortunately, the National Park Service is continuing to push ill-conceived regulations for ORVs to culturally significant and recreationally important areas that negatively impact local economies which depend upon recreation and tourism. As seen with Cape Hatteras National Seashore, undue large closures to traditionally accessible beach areas can have a devastating impact on the local economy and small, family-owned businesses. In the 113th Congress, members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (CSC) sponsored legislation before both chambers of Congress that promote a more balanced strategy, improving access to public lands and conserving wildlife.

Background

This national park, located along the Outer Banks in North Carolina, is one of the premier surf fishing locations in the United States attracting over 2 million visitors each year. Off-road vehicle (ORV) access to the park is essential for surf fishing from the beaches, as well as many other recreational activities.

Executive Order 11644 of 1972 mandated that federal agencies allowing ORV use must make regulations for such use. In response to the executive order, NPS developed an Interim Protected Species Management Strategy (Interim Strategy) in 2007 as a temporary compromise until an ORV management plan could be finalized. The Interim Strategy provided necessary protections for wildlife while still allowing access to some of the most popular recreation areas in the park. However, this reasonable, science-based plan was cast aside when NPS approved a much more restrictive ORV plan that went into effect on February 15, 2012.

The new plan closes extensive areas of the seashore to the public and severely limits ORV access, far outweighing what is needed to address resource protection. Not only does the plan threaten access for sportfishing and other recreational activities, but also the seashore’s local recreation industry which employs over 2,600 people.

Recent Activity

The Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act (H.R. 819) was introduced on February 26, 2013 by Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus member Representative Walter Jones Jr. (NC-3) and reported to the House on July 9, 2013 following approval from the House Natural Resources Committee. The act reinstates the 2007 Interim Management Strategy, restoring reasonable ORV and pedestrian access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area while providing appropriate shorebird and resource protection. It prohibits additional restrictions on pedestrian or vehicular access unless science-based evidence indicates a restriction is needed to protect endangered species. The bill was placed on the legislative calendar and awaits further action.

Senate Bill 486, titled the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act requires a review of wildlife buffers in the area by the Secretary of the Interior. Through this bill, buffers must be as small as necessary to protect a species and requires corridors around wildlife buffers to allow access to unprotected areas. This amended version of the legislation does not specifically benefit access to the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area, and fails to specifically address the current access issues in the park. However, it is still an improvement over the current situation for sportsmen should this legislation move forward in Congress. Introduced by CSC member Senator Richard Burr on March 7, 2013 and unanimously approved by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, S. 486 awaits further action from the Senate floor.

The Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act (H.R. 819) was introduced on February 26, 2013 by Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus member Representative Walter Jones Jr. (NC-3) and reported to the House on July 9, 2013 following approval from the House Natural Resources Committee. The act reinstates the 2007 Interim Management Strategy, restoring reasonable ORV and pedestrian access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area while providing appropriate shorebird and resource protection. It prohibits additional restrictions on pedestrian or vehicular access unless science-based evidence indicates a restriction is needed to protect endangered species. The bill was placed on the legislative calendar and awaits further action.

Senate Bill 486, titled the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act requires a review of wildlife buffers in the area by the Secretary of the Interior. Through this bill, buffers must be as small as necessary to protect a species and requires corridors around wildlife buffers to allow access to unprotected areas. This amended version of the legislation does not specifically benefit access to the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area, and fails to specifically address the current access issues in the park. However, it is still an improvement over the current situation for sportsmen should this legislation move forward in Congress. Introduced by CSC member Senator Richard Burr on March 7, 2013, an amended version of the legislation was unanimously approved by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 18, 2013.

On December 19, 2014, President Obama signed the “Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act,” along with 43 other public lands measures, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.

After almost three years of the National Park Service restricting off-road vehicles (ORVs) across extensive areas on the National Seashore, residents and visitors alike, especially sportfishing enthusiasts, should welcome the passage of this legislation and continue to engage in the process to ensure that a balanced science-based strategy with proper access is promoted moving forward.

The Act mandates modifications using peer-reviewed data to ensure that only the smallest areas and shortest duration for wildlife buffers are implemented and that closed areas utilize corridors to allow access to surrounding open areas. Specifically, the Secretary of Interior, through a public process, is required to consider lifting unreasonable night driving restrictions, extending seasonal ORV routes, modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas, and constructing new vehicle access sites.

While the passage of the Act is certainly a major step in the right direction, the language leaves significant discretion to the Secretary of the Interior.  Moving forward, the recreational angling community should remain diligent in monitoring and engaging in the process to ensure recreational pursuits and access are properly balanced with resource management.

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