By IRENE NOLAN
The National Park Service has released more information on the five public scoping meetings that it plans in early August to get input for possible changes to its off-road vehicle management plan at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The public process to consider changes is required by legislation passed by Congress last December as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that is intended to provide more public access to seashore beaches.
The legislation required that within 180 days, the Secretary of the Interior review and modify buffers for nesting birds and turtles and do it in accordance with applicable laws and in consultation with the state Wildlife Resources Commission. The buffers were modified in an Environmental Assessment that was completed in June.
The new law also requires that seashore officials conduct a public process to consider changes to hours that the beaches open in the morning, dates for seasonal ORV routes, and locations of vehicle-free areas (VFAs).
The additional information came in the form of a newsletter on the public scoping meetings, the dates of which were announced last week.
The newsletter reviews the purpose and need for the meetings, how to participate and comment, and provides some examples of changes the park could make to regulations on hours, seasonal routes, and VFAs. In addition, it says that the seashore is also considering changes to the length of time that ORV permits are valid and access improvements.
Seashore Superintendent David Hallac explained earlier this week that the Park Service is exploring these changes with a different public process than it used with the wildlife buffers.
For the buffer modifications, the Park Service released a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) with its preferred changes, then held public scoping meetings to get input and issued its final plan.
This time around, Hallac said, seashore officials are asking for input from the seashore users “right off” at the “starting line.”
In the newsletter, the park presents some preliminary options for changes to opening hours, seasonal closures, VFAs, access locations, and permitting. Then it invites the public to suggest alternative options.
The Park Service will review the public scoping comments and refine the alternatives and then release a draft EA and begin a public review period in December.
According to the schedule published in the newsletter, NPS will review and respond to public comments to the draft document next winter, issue a decision document in the spring, and modify the final ORV rule and implement the selected alternative next summer and fall.
The Park Service is required by the legislation to report back to Congress by December on what measures it has enacted.
Here are the preliminary alternatives that the Park Service has presented in the newsletter.
MORNING BEACH OPENINGS
Currently all ORV-accessible beaches open at 7 a.m., after resource management staff have marked the location of any new turtle nests, false crawls, or turtle hatches that have occurred overnight. The NPS developed preliminary options for opening beaches earlier than 7 a.m.
These preliminary options are:
Designating priority beaches that are cleared by resource management staff and opened at 6:30 a.m.
Allowing visitors to follow resource management staff onto the beach at a designated ramp and to drive a safe distance behind staff as they clear the beach.
SEASONAL ORV ROUTES
Currently, seasonal ORV routes, located in front of the villages and Ocracoke campground, are open from Nov. 1 through March 31. An additional seasonal ORV route on Bodie Island is open from Sept. 15 through March 14. That seasonal route period is due to resource considerations, and park staff indicate that the current seasonal route period has been consistent with bird activity in that location. Therefore, the NPS would like to focus on the village and campground ORV route locations. For the seasonal ORV routes in front of the villages and Ocracoke campground, the NPS preliminary alternatives include extending the ORV route period for:
- An additional two weeks in the fall and spring
- An additional four weeks in the fall and spring
- An additional six weeks in the fall and Spring
- An extension in the fall only
Current locations of VFAs and designated ORV routes were developed throughout the ORV management plan/Environmental Impact Statement planning process, which concluded in 2010. Throughout that process, factors that were considered in designating ORV and pedestrian-only locations (or VFAs) included:
- Proximity to villages, ensuring both the pedestrian and ORV visitor experience was available within a reasonable distance from each village.
- Presence of adequate parking, high-density day use areas, and lifeguarded beaches, which could better support VFAs.
- Resource management concerns, including the location of wintering shorebird activities.
- Providing for a balance between ORV areas and VFAs.
What locations do you see as potential areas for modification?
Existing ORV routes and ramps were designated at certain locations with the intent to provide access on either side of an ORV route to allow for reliable access, even if one ramp is unusable due to a resource closure. The 2010 ORV EIS also proposed new or expanded parking areas to improve pedestrian and ORV access. What are some key locations where changes to parking or ramp configurations could improve beach or soundside access?
Under the Final Rule, the NPS can issue annual permits that are valid only for the calendar year or seven days. Based on visitor feedback, the NPS would like to explore different permit lengths, and some options being considered include:
- Three-day permits
- 10-day permits
- 14-day permits
- Annual permits, valid for a year from issue date
The five public meetings are scheduled as follows:
- Wednesday, Aug. 5, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Ocracoke School, 1 Schoolhouse Road, Ocracoke.
- Thursday, Aug. 6, 6 to 8 p.m. McKimmon Conference & Training Center, 1101 Gorman Street, NC State University Campus, Raleigh, N.C.
- Monday, Aug. 10, 6 to 8 p.m. –Cape Hatteras Secondary School, 48576 Hwy 12, Buxton.
- Tuesday, Aug. 11, 6 to 8 p.m. – Hilton Garden Inn, 5353 Virginia Dare Trail, Kitty Hawk.
- Wednesday, Aug. 12, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. – Embassy Suites Hampton Inn, 1700 Coliseum Drive, Hampton, VA 23666
You can be involved in several ways:
- Attend a public scoping meeting.
- Submit comments electronically to: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/caha-orv-ea.
- Submit written comments by mail to: Superintendent, Outer Banks Group/Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC 27954.
The Park Service asks that comments be submitted electronically or by mail. Faxed comments and e-mails will not be accepted. Please be sure to include your full name and e-mail address, if available, with the comments, so you can be added to the mailing list for information about the planning process. For your comments to be the most useful in developing the EA, please submit comments by Aug. 21.
You should be aware that your entire comment– including personal identifying information such as your address, phone number, and email address–may be made publicly available at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so. Comments submitted by individuals or organizations on behalf of other individuals or organizations will not be accepted.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to see the five-page newsletter on public scoping and to view a map of designated ORV routes.