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Ocracoke beach off Ramp 68. Photo by C. Leinbach

By Irene Nolan

Used by permission. See story at

After a week of seemingly endless procedural delays and debate, the U.S. Senate Dec. 12 passed the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of  89 to 11.

Attached to the bill and also passed is a public lands package of bills, one of which includes some significant changes to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s Off-Road Vehicle Plan.

The House of Representatives easily passed the bill last week on Thursday, Dec. 4.

The defense authorization bill, H.R. 3979, now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama, who is expected to quickly sign it.

The Cape Hatteras legislation instructs the Secretary of Interior to review and adjust wildlife protection buffers, keep them in place the shortest possible duration, designate vehicle and pedestrian corridors around resource closures, and confer with the state of North Carolina on certain buffers and protections. 

It also makes other modifications to the final ORV plan, such as conducting a public process to consider such changes as the earlier opening of beaches that are closed at night during the summer, extending seasonal ORV routes in the fall and spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas.

The Secretary of the Interior must report to the Congress within a year on the measures taken to implement the legislation.

The legislation that has been passed doesn’t go as far as advocates for more reasonable public access to the seashore would like, nor is it what North Carolina’s Congressional delegation originally proposed.

Bills introduced earlier into  this Congress and the one before it with the bipartisan support of Republican U.S. Rep Walter Jones and the state’s two senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, would have overturned the final rule and ordered the Park Service to return to its publically vetted 2007 Interim Protected Species Management Plan.

The House passed the bill to overturn the ORV plan twice as part of a larger public lands package, most recently last February.

The Senate bill was amended and then favorably reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June 2013, also along with other public lands bills. But the legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Most had considered any legislation to change the ORV plan dead until the new Congress convenes in January.

However, in a surprise move, a House and Senate conference committee collected a number of public lands bills into a package of more than 90 pieces of legislation and added the package to the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act at the very last hour — very late on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 2.

Some lawmakers objected to adding the package to the defense bill, most notably Sen. James Coburn, R-Okla., who forced a procedural delay.

However, lawmakers on the natural resources committees of both chambers successfully argued that no comprehensive legislation on public lands had been passed in six years and that the package was badly needed and long overdue.

The final package was indeed bipartisan, with something for both Republicans and Democrats to dislike.  And it was the result of a long process of compromise and horse-trading. 

The ORV bill is a prime example.  Many Democrats on the Senate Natural Resources Committee opposed overturning the ORV plan but members were able to work out a compromise that both sides could live with.

Members of groups that support more reasonable public access, including the Outer Banks Preservation Association and the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, were celebrating this evening.

“The passage of the Cape Hatteras bill today represents a major milestone in our fight to properly balance visitor recreational and resource protection goals within the seashore,” David Scarborough, OBPA treasurer, said in a statement. “It has been a rocky road to navigate, and we thank our membership for their encouragement and support over the years.  We know they are happy with the progress this legislation represents.  

“We cannot overstate our gratitude to Congressman Jones, Senator Burr, Senator Hagan, and Senator Dole before Senator Hagan for their  years of undying commitment to our cause.

The satisfaction, relief and sense of accomplishment we feel today is tempered by the realization that much work is still ahead to execute the new law and to accomplish its objective,” Scarborough added. “As I’ve said before, we look forward to working with the new superintendent to make Cape Hatteras the best seashore recreational area in the nation.”

A statement from Burr’s office noted that he has “long been an advocate of opening up North Carolina’s beaches to the public, while maintaining the wildlife and scenic beauty and began work on this legislation in 2008.”

“Tonight’s Senate vote is a triumph for the Outer Banks region,” Burr said.  “The constraining regulations outside interest groups and the federal government have imposed are finally being lifted.  This is a win for North Carolinians and tourists from around the country who wish to visit North Carolina’s scenic treasures.  I trust that the Park Service will use these new guidelines responsibility and I look forward to working with them to ensure that we are protecting beaches while also enjoying them.”

Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials declined to comment until the bill is signed by the President.

Here is the exact language for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that is part of the public lands package:


(a) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:
(1) FINAL RULE.—The term ‘‘Final Rule’’means the final rule entitled ‘‘Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, Cape Hatteras National Seashore—Off-Road Vehicle Management’’(77 Fed. Reg. 3123 (January 23, 2012)).
(2) NATIONAL SEASHORE.—The term ‘‘National Seashore’’ means the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area.
(3) SECRETARY.—The term ‘‘Secretary’’ means the Secretary of the Interior.
(4) STATE.—The term ‘‘State’’ means the State of North Carolina.

(1) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall review and modify wildlife buffers in the National Seashore in accordance with this subsection and any other applicable law.
(2) BUFFER MODIFICATIONS.—In modifying wildlife buffers under paragraph (1), the Secretary shall, using adaptive management practices—
(A) ensure that the buffers are of the shortest duration and cover the smallest area necessary to protect a species, as determined in accordance with peer-reviewed scientific data; and
(B) designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors around areas of the National Seashore closed because of wildlife buffers, to allow access to areas that are open.
(3) COORDINATION WITH STATE.—The Secretary, after coordinating with the State, shall determine appropriate buffer protections for species that are not listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), but that are identified for protection under State law.

(c) MODIFICATIONS TO FINAL RULE.—The Secretary shall undertake a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements at the National Seashore, the following changes to the Final Rule:
(1) Opening beaches at the National Seashore that are closed to night driving restrictions, by opening beach segments each morning on a rolling basis as daily management reviews are completed.
(2) Extending seasonal off-road vehicle routes for additional periods in the Fall and Spring if offroad vehicle use would not create resource management problems at the National Seashore.
(3) Modifying the size and location of vehicle free areas.

(d) CONSTRUCTION OF NEW VEHICLE ACCESS POINTS.—The Secretary shall construct new vehicle access points and roads at the National Seashore—
(1) as expeditiously as practicable; and
(2) in accordance with applicable management plans for the National Seashore.

(e) REPORT.—The Secretary shall report to Congress within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act on measures taken to implement this section.

Click here to read the entire 1,648 pages of the National Defense Authorization Act.

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