A year ago, most advocates for more reasonable public access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches were more or less resigned to the fact that there would not be changes to the 2012 Off-Road Vehicle Plan until a five-year review in 2017.
Efforts over more than five years to change the plan legislatively had gone nowhere in the U.S. Congress.
A lawsuit by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance (CHAPA) to stop the plan failed last June when federal Judge Terrence Boyle -- to no one's surprise -- ruled in favor of the National Park Service, writing in his opinion that the federal government had followed all laws and met all regulatory requirements when formulating the final ORV regulation.
Then came a surprising turn of events. Right after Thanksgiving, in a rush to finish its work before Christmas, the lame duck Congress attached a package of public lands and energy bills to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act -- a "must pass" piece of legislation.
Included in the package was legislation that instructs the Secretary of the Interior to make some changes to the ORV plan and to report back to Congress on those changes. Chief among the instructions given the Secretary was to review and analyze wildlife protection buffers, make sure they are of the shortest duration, and cover the smallest area necessary, and to designate pedestrian and ORV corridors around the buffers.
The buffers -- their size and their duration -- have been the most contentious part of the ORV plan and have been the reason for what many consider to be excessive beach closures during the nesting season.
The legislation was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President before Christmas and became the first order of business for the seashore's new superintendent, David Hallac, when he arrived in late December.
The seashore was required to report back to Congress by June 16 on the buffers and corridors part of the legislation and by the end of the year on the rest.
Hallac admits that the Congressional mandate wasn't exactly the welcome he had expected, but he and his staff set to work to figure out how to do what Congress has ordered "in accordance with peer-reviewed scientific data" and "consistent with management practices at the seashore" -- all in a very short time.
And next week, we will find out if there will be any significant changes in wildlife buffers, closures, and beach access during the breeding season.
Some time next week -- probably about mid-week, Hallac says -- the Park Service will release its draft Environmental Assessment (EA) with its proposed actions to meet the requirements of the legislation. He says a no-action alternative -- keeping the current practices in place -- and at least one action alternative will be presented.
Also included in the EA will be literature review of the science used to formulate the alternative and a summary of how the seashore staff applied the science.
The release of the EA will be followed the next week by five public meetings and a two-week public comment period. Seashore staff will then review the comments, Hallac says, and choose an alternative by June 16.
Hallac wouldn't share the details of the EA, which is in the process of being reviewed by NPS officials in the Southeast Regional Office in Atlantic and in Washington, D.C.
However, he did offer a small preview. He said there would be recommended changes to some buffers and that corridors will be proposed "in some areas, at some times."
He still says it's possible to implement some of the proposed changes -- should they become final -- this summer, but that's not a sure thing.
"Some of the changes will take time for us to get resources that are necessary to protect (wildlife) in place," Hallac said. For instance, he said, a smaller buffer could require more monitoring by seashore staff.
"If there is anything we can go ahead and do, we will," he said.
In addition to announcing dates for the public meetings in May, Hallac also released an updated and expedited schedule for completing some of the new construction projects the Park Service committed to when it put the new ORV plan in place.
One of those projects -- a new Ramp 25.5 -- was built last year and the parking area is currently under construction. A new Ramp 32 with a parking area and foot trail to the beach was planned for this year and will be completed as planned. Both are between Salvo and Avon.
Three other projects are being expedited and will be completed this year or next. All three were at the top of a list of projects that CHAPA proposed last month for top priority.
The three are:
- An interdunal road from Ramp 45 to Ramp 49.
- A new Ramp 48 in Frisco.
- A new Ramp 63 on north Ocracoke.
The first two projects will enhance ORV access between Cape Point and Ramp 49 in Frisco -- traveling between those two points is no longer possible because of a vehicle-free area in between them. This will allow vehicles to travel between them without going off the beach, onto Highway 12, and back on the beach. The Ramp 48 will allow more public access to the South Beach in Frisco.
The projects were chosen, Hallac said, because the legislation specifically calls for the construction of new ORV access points and roads as quickly as possible. The other 24 or so new construction projects that are planned all address pedestrian access.
Hallac said the three projects will cost about $750,000. To expedite them, park officials have put other projects on the back burner, will handle them in-house with seashore staff, will fill a vacant position with a heavy equipment operator, and will get an infusion of some additional funds from the Southeast Region.
Also, Hallac has responded to the frustration of beach access groups over their inability to get information from the Park Service on how ORV permit funds are being spent.
The seashore recently posted online detailed information on the status of ORV funds for 2014.
It shows that in the fiscal year, $2.09 million has been collected, and $2.79 million spent. The largest expenditure -- $981,000 is for personnel -- including needed fee collectors, law enforcement rangers, maintenance workers, and seasonal interpretive rangers.
It would be useful to see the staffing expense further broken down and justified, but, all in all, the list is exhaustive -- right down to $222.27 for first aid kits to $162.23 for a trailer hitch.
Hallac should get high marks for conducting this process of legislated changes as publicly and transparently as he possibly can. He should also be commended for reaching out to stakeholders -- both groups and individuals -- on Hatteras and Ocracoke.
He's attended Ocracoke Business and Civic Association and Anglers Club meetings, met with folks in his office and in theirs, and driven the beaches with members of access groups.
It's interesting to note that he's familiar enough with the ORV routes on the islands to have figured out that the wide, flat beach at Ramp 49 in Frisco is a great place to practice your beach driving and go beachcombing. He said he made several trips down with his family over the winter to sharpen his skill at driving on sand -- since he hadn't done it in a number of years -- and to walk the beach, searching for shells.
All of this looks and sounds great, but it's all going to come down to what's in that EA that will be made public next week.
There will have to be some changes -- Congress has demanded that and beach access advocates expect it.
But there cannot be so many changes that environmental advocacy groups, which sued the Park Service in 2007 over its lack of an ORV plan, are driven to return to Judge Boyle's courtroom.
Given Boyle's past performances and his chumminess with Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys, it's clear that a return to court would not end well for more public access to the seashore.
We are now poised at a crossroads, and we'll know a whole lot more for about the future of access for drivers and pedestrians this time next month.
ORV legislation is very significant for access advocates:
A conversation with the new seashore superintendent:
NPS response to legislation begins to take shape:
2015 National Defense Authorization Act Actions Update:
2014 ORV Permit Status of Funds:
During the week of April 27, the Park Service plans to release the Environmental Assessment, which will present the seashore’s proposed action to modify wildlife buffers and establish corridors. The release of the document will be followed by a two-week public review period.
Five public meetings are scheduled for the week of May 4 to provide the public with the opportunity to learn about the proposed action. They are scheduled for:
- Monday, May 4. Ocracoke School, 1 Schoolhouse Road, from 6 to 8 p.m.
- Tuesday, May 5. Buxton at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, 48576 Highway 12, from 6 until 8 p.m.
- Wednesday, May 6. Raleigh, North Carolina. N.C. State University Campus, McKimmon Conference and Training Center, 1101 Gorman Street, Raleigh, from 6 until 8 p.m.
- Thursday, May 7. Hampton/ Norfolk, Virginia. Embassy Suites Hampton Roads, 1700 Coliseum Drive, Hampton, from 6 to 8 p.m.
- Friday, May 8. Kitty Hawk. Hilton Garden Inn, 5353 N. Virginia Dare Trail, Kitty Hawk, from 6 until 8 p.m.
The legislation also requires a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements at the seashore, changes to the ORV special regulation as it relates to morning opening of beaches, extending the length of fall and spring seasonal ORV routes, and modifying vehicle free areas. This second phase of the review will be conducted beginning in July 2015.