Saving Hatteras Surf Fishing – Issue History
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area (CHNSRA) in North Carolina is one of the premier surf fishing locations in the United States, attracting anglers from all across the country for once-in-a-lifetime angling opportunities. Off-road vehicle (ORV) access to CHNSRA is essential for surf fishing from the beaches, as well as many other recreational activities. However on December 20, 2010, the National Park Service (NPS) announced its decision to approve an ORV management plan that closes extensive areas of the seashore to the public and severely limits ORV access, far outweighing what is needed to address resource protection. The final ORV plan, which went into effect on February 15, 2012, poses serious issues for the local economy, which is largely dependent upon tourism and recreation.
Legislation that will restore reasonable public access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area in North Carolina has passed the Senate and is expected to be signed into law. The measure was one of 44 public lands provisions included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which passed the U.S. Senate on December 12.
The Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to review and modify the final ORV rule to better accommodate public access, including: minimizing the size and duration of closures based on peer-reviewed science; allowing access corridors around closed areas; accommodating night-time driving; and constructing new vehicle access sites.
The full text of the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act can be found here.
Executive Order 11644 of 1972 requires federal agencies permitting ORV use on agency lands to make regulations for such use. Due to this order, the NPS developed an ORV Management Plan for the CHNSRA. The NPS maintains that ORVs must be regulated in a manner that appropriately addresses resource protection—including threatened and endangered species—and potential conflicts among the various CHNSRA users. The NPS adopted a new management plan that went into effect on February 15, 2012.
Since ORVs are necessary to access many sportfishing areas of the CHNSRA, the concern is that the ORV Plan has given little consideration to economic impacts to any segment of the sportfishing industry and the communities that depend on sportfishing. The implementation of the ORV Plan poses serious questions about the future of recreational fishing in the CHNSRA and presents a serious challenge to sportfishing.
Interim Strategy and Consent Decree
In an attempt to complete the new ORV Management Plan in a collaborative fashion, the NPS formed the CHNSRA Negotiated Rulemaking (RegNeg) Committee to assist in its development of the Plan. The RegNeg Committee consists of stakeholders in the CHNSRA, including environmental groups, anglers, business-owners and tourism organizations, among others.
On June 13, 2007, the NPS implemented an Interim Protected Species Management Strategy (Interim Strategy) to provide adequate protection for resident shorebirds until RegNeg was completed. However, on February 20, 2008, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society (Plaintiffs) filed an injunction asking that all ORV access, except for essential vehicles, be stopped on the CHNSRA. The Plaintiffs argued that the NPS’s Interim Strategy did not provide adequate protection for area shorebirds. The federal government declined to defend the Interim Strategy and entered into settlement negotiations with the Plaintiffs.
In late April 2008, Federal District Judge Terrence Boyle approved a consent decree outlining the details of the settlement agreement, which remained in effect until the RegNeg Committee completed its work and the NPS issued the final long-term ORV Management Plan. The details of the settlement agreement are extensive and put in place protections for shorebirds that exceed those outlined in the Interim Strategy.
These protections have resulted in extensive restrictions on ORV access to key surf fishing spots in the CHNSRA and an undue economic burden on the local economy.
Both Plaintiffs held seats on the RegNeg Committee, a situation that many viewed as a conflict of interest. This concern was brought to the attention of Department of Interior (DOI) staff by other RegNeg Committee members and various CHNSRA stakeholders. Although several groups requested the removal of the Plaintiffs from the RegNeg Committee on the basis that they did not follow ground rules to negotiate “in good faith,” this request was denied by the DOI in June 2008.
The RegNeg Committee met approximately 12 times from January 2008 – February 2009. However, it was never able to come to consensus (i.e., unanimous vote) on a comprehensive management plan for ORVs. The points of contention were focused on which parts of the seashore would or would not be deemed an ORV “route or area” and what level of protection/buffers wildlife would be afforded. Following the end of the RegNeg Committee process, the NPS began to develop its own ‘preferred alternative,’ along with a spectrum of other alternatives.
ORV Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement
On March 5, 2010, the NPS released its ORV Draft Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which evaluates the potential impacts of several alternatives guiding management of the CHNSRA. The NPS preferred alternative, Alternative F, as outlined in the DEIS is the most restrictive management option to date, far exceeding any sense of balance between resource protection and public access, and betraying all promises made to the public regarding recreational uses in the seashore. The majority of the provisions include excessively large resource closures (buffers), unnecessary year-round and floating closures, and the lack of access corridors around or through resource closures. In addition, critical socio-economic information was either missing or incomplete in the DEIS.
The public comment period on the DEIS closed on May 11, 2010. After reviewing comments, the Park made revisions to the DEIS and released a final Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement on December 20, 2010, which adopted the NPS preferred alternative. The final ORV management plan for the CHNSRA closes extensive areas of the seashore to the public and severely limits ORV access to one of the premier surf fishing locations on the East coast.
The final ORV plan was put into effect on February 15, 2012 and poses serious issues for the local economy, which is largely dependent upon tourism and recreation. This precedent-setting plan could shape the future treatment of angler and ORV access in national parks across the country.
Legislation to Restore Access
The Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act was introduced in Congress to reinstate the NPS’s Interim Protected Species Management Strategy governing ORV and pedestrian access, which was subject to a public process and withstood environmental review. The bill will overturn the newly adopted ORV management plan, and a similarly onerous 2008 Consent Decree that has guided park management for the last three years.
On June 19, 2012, the Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives as part of a package of public lands bills, but failed to pass the Senate before the end of the 112th Congress.
In early 2013, Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Representative Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced legislation (S. 486 and H.R. 819) that would restore reasonable ORV and pedestrian access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area while providing appropriate shorebird and resource protection.
With six Republican co-sponsors, H. R. 819 was reported to committee on May 15, 2013. On June 18, 2013, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously advanced an amended version of S. 486 that would require a review of the ORV management plan and require modifications to allow for better public access. This bill currently awaits action on the Senate floor but it is probable it will have to be reintroduced in the 114th Congress.