The Bitter Debate Over Driving on the Beach: Sidestepping the Real Issues

Cameron Smith is in the Master of Science in Coastal and Ocean Policy program at UNC Wilmington. After completing a BS degree in physics and astronomy (and learning to rock climb) at Appalachian State, he missed the beautiful NC coast and wanted to be involved in protecting it. During the master’s program he has worked in two internships, one at a local bird rehabilitation clinic and one at an environmental nonprofit. After graduating from the master’s program he hopes to work in wildlife rehabilitation or management, and is always interested in creative ways to bring science to the public.

In recent years, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been embroiled in a fierce conflict between park managers and off road vehicle users. In several ways, politics has overshadowed the science of species management leading to increasing resentment between local residents and park managers over policies that are not likely to achieve species protection goals.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a 70-mile long stretch of barrier islands, linked by ferries, bridges, and a paved two-lane road. The park attracts over 2 million visitors per year, with over half of visitors in June, July, and August. The seashore is home to a variety of wildlife, including the piping plover, a small shorebird which lives on the beach and nests on top of sand dunes.

Some beach visitors use off-road vehicles (ORVs), which are personal vehicles with four-wheel drive and partially deflated tires. ORV users have the freedom to explore the stretches of undeveloped beach and follow moving schools of fish throughout the day, and ORVs make the beach more easily accessible to people with physical disabilities. However, ORVs can disrupt the feeding and resting of shorebirds, and the camouflaged nests and chicks can be crushed under vehicle tires.

The National Park Service (NPS) did not have an ORV management plan until environmental advocacy groups sued in 2007 to insist it create one, as required under the Endangered Species Act and other regulations. The NPS used a negotiated policymaking process to involve a variety of stakeholders. People divided into “camps”, with local business owners, many residents, and ORV users opposing some residents and environmental groups. Debate was often heated and emotional, and a few angry ORV supporters occasionally treated park staff with hostility and threats. The NPS enacted the current rules in 2012.

Although ORVs affect shorebirds’ foraging activities and can pose a risk to chicks and eggs, predation is a serious threat that the ORV debate has mostly ignored. Some predators, such as gulls, crows, and raccoons, are native to the islands, but human activities such as building of an artificial dune line have allowed their numbers to greatly increase. However, most of the present-day predators, including dogs, cats, skunks, and rats, are not native to the Outer Banks. They were brought as pets or crossed bridges from the mainland. The NPS traps and euthanizes hundreds of predators every year, as well as installing predator exclosures around every known shorebird nest. However, ghost crabs can get through the exclosures, and the precocial chicks leave the protected nest within hours of hatching, but cannot fly for several weeks.

However, park management of predators touches on a difficult subject: the differing view of “nature” and what is “natural.” While some see nature as an imagined pristine wilderness untouched by humans, others see nature as what is outside their door every day. For example, at public hearings, one woman described a cherished childhood memory of feeding raccoons off her grandmother’s porch. Domestic animals are another contentious issue. Free-roaming domestic cats are regularly caught in NPS traps, and unleashed dogs are prohibited in the park.

In addition to predation, several other conditions contribute to the piping plover decline that ORV regulations do not at all address:
  • Habitat loss: the increasing development of the islands and the constant maintenance needed to keep Highway 12 from disappearing are significant disruptions to the birds’ already limited habitat.
  • Cultural conflict: For locals, new park regulations add salt to the wounds of what many consider a federal government intrusion on small communities. When the NPS formed Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it purchased the land in the early 1950s from local “Bankers” who had lived there for several generations. Almost seventy years later, many area residents still have a strong cultural memory of a time when they were almost completely isolated from the mainland, and still resent what they see as the federal government’s intrusion. 
  • Misinformation: most people who objected to ORV restrictions stated that they would decrease tourism, but visitor numbers have not decreased, and a recent economic analysis shows an overall economic benefit to the Outer Banks. In this case, pro- and anti-ORV groups have latched onto this issue and turned it into a “culture war”, but this only sidesteps the real problems.
The NPS is not meeting its guiding mandate: the wildlife in the park is severely threatened and continuing to decline. Potential approaches include more effective and humane predator control, and community-wide efforts to make the Outer Banks less hospitable to invasive predators.


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