By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke was the site Wednesday (Aug. 8) of the first of the five public scoping meetings to get public input for possible changes to its off-road vehicle management plan at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. About 20 people attended the meeting in the school gym.
Seashore Superintendent David Hallac gave an overview of the planning process and the need for public input and he had several NPS staffers available to listen to comments and answer questions in breakout sessions after his briefing.
‘Using a PowerPoint presentation, Hallac highlighted the major issues of the public process, which includes considering changes to hours when beaches open in the morning, dates for seasonal ORV routes, and locations of vehicle-free areas (VFAs). This is required by legislation passed by Congress last December as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. It is intended to provide more public access to seashore beaches. Information screens are shown below.
The legislation required that within 180 days, the Secretary of the Interior is to review and modify buffers for nesting birds and turtles and do so in accordance with applicable laws and in consultation with the state Wildlife Resources Commission. In June the NPS approved a plan to modify wildlife protection buffers at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. (Seashore) as required by Section 3057 of the Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2015, Public Law 113-291.
The buffers were modified in an Environmental Assessment that was completed in June.
According to the NPS, the new rules provide corridors around buffers for many species, including American oystercatchers, Wilson’s plovers, piping plovers, colonial nesting water birds and sea turtles. The plan also maintains protections for wildlife along the seashore by augmenting the seashore’s monitoring and on-the-ground management program.
During the open forum, Al Scarborough pointed out that on Ocracoke, there is virtually no access to the sound. Hallac responded that Sound access is part of the planning process and he would like to hear any thoughts on it.
Several people inquired about the success of nesting birds with one man saying he had heard only 14 birds were successfully fledged this season.
“Colonial water birds, especially terns are having a very successful year and hundreds if not more are fledging,” Michelle Havens, chief of resource management for the Outer Banks Group, said.
Kimberly Farr, a biological science technician, pointed out that there is significant increase in turtle nesting on Ocracoke this season. She said, ” unless an ocean over wash is sustained, the nests are not destroyed. It depends on many factors as to whether the over wash will destroy nests.”
“About 25 percent of the turtle nests are relocated,” Hallac said. This is done primarily to save the nests from being inundated with water.
Several people suggested the permit process be modified to include more flexibility than the two current pass options, which are a weekly pass for $50 and a yearly plan for $120.
A monthly permit and a free permit for those with disabilities were mentioned. Hallac said one of the biggest complaints has been the calendar year permits (permits are good for a calendar year regardless of when they are purchased.) and most comments he has heard support having a permit good for one full year from the date it is purchased.
Emily Jones, the senior program manager of the Southeast Regional Office of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), who attended the meeting to observe and learn more.
“Our primary interest is to protect the natural, cultural and historical resources in the park,” she said. “By natural resources that means the wildlife, and we also want to balance that with the visitor experience. Not every visitor wants to be lined in a row of cars. Some people who come to the Outer Banks want to have a natural beach experience.”
She said her group wants to make sure people can enjoy the beach.
“Cape Hatteras may have the biggest challenges in trying to manage the visitor experience and try to keep the different user groups happy and be able to protect the sea turtles, shorebirds and other wildlife,” she said.
Hyde County Manager Bill Rich praised Hallac and the NPS for being so responsive to the issues, the county has presented to them.
The remaining public meetings will be:
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