By Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich
(Updated 10:01 p.m. March 9, 2016)
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is looking to relax some of the rules to beach access on Ocracoke. That was the message when National Park Service officials spoke on Ocracoke March 2 and also at Monday night’s Hyde County commissioners meeting.
These changes come from a formal procedure called the Environmental Assessment for Consideration of Changes to Final Rule for Off-Road Vehicle Management Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CAHA).
Last fall in a public scoping meeting on Ocracoke, several suggestions were made including improving access to the sound side and having the beach areas open longer for permitted off-road vehicles (ORVs).
Park superintendent David Hallac said at the Ocracoke meeting on March 2 that some of these suggestions were studied and made part of the proposed alternatives.
The changes were also presented at the Hyde County Commissioners monthly meeting Monday evening. Mark Dowdle, deputy superintendent, highlighted the proposed modifications including those preferred by CAHA.
Some are taking effect this year and others could be made later.
One this year on Ocracoke will be a complete rebuild of the pedestrian ramp at the lifeguard beach that will provide a ramp from the deck for wheel chair access to the beach. Construction will begin in April and be completed by Memorial Day. During that time, a temporary access to the beach will be available for pedestrians, he said.
The new beach access road, called Ramp 63, is nearly completed, Dowdle said. They are awaiting asphalt to be added, and it should be ready in the next few weeks. Funds for this project come from the ORV fees.
As of March 16, anyone will be able to get a weekly or year beach driving permit online. These passes can be printed out and attached to vehicle windshields and can be used until the official decal arrives in the mail.
“These improvements will increase visitor convenience,” Dowdle said, as well as reduce costs. “If we sell more permits online, we can reduce staff,” he said.
To purchase a permit online, visit http://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm#Update
The annual permits are still purchased for a calendar year, but the Park Service is considering allowing them to be good from the date of purchase. (This is corrected information.)
In another change this year, the NPS campground will open April 15 and be extended later in the year until Nov. 28, Dowdle said. Again, he said this was in response to suggestions made last fall.
A proposed modification that could take place later includes getting better access to the sound side of the island.
Across from the campground, the NPS is looking into improving what they call Devil Shoals Road which would provide access for cars in addition to off-road vehicles and improve the parking area at the end. This access area would not require an off-road vehicle permit.
The other sound access location is towards the ferry and is called Bitter Wash Creek.
A prior decision to close Ramp 59, the most northerly beach ramp, has been changed to leave it open and extend the driving area further south, he said.
Dowdle added that some of these access changes would require public comment.
As for opening the beaches earlier, the Park Service is looking into opening some parts of the beaches as early as 6 a.m. Currently, from May 1 to Sept. 14, ORV routes on ocean beaches are closed to ORVs from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. to protect nesting sea turtles.
Hallac had said opening the beaches earlier would require Park Service staff to drive the beaches earlier to assess if there are new nests.
Though a decision hasn’t been made as to the what time the beaches will open, with increased staffing this summer, the work could be completed earlier allowing for earlier beach access.
“Just make one opening time,” said John Fletcher, Ocracoke’s county commissioner about the various possibilities. “It’s too confusing to people. Reduce the number of rules. Every rule made is a chance of inconvenience for the public.”
The Environmental Assessment for Consideration of Changes to Final Rule for Off-Road Vehicle Management
The Final Rule for off-road vehicle (ORV) management at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore) was implemented in 2012.
On Dec. 19, 2014, the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (the 2014 Act). The legislation required the NPS to review and modify wildlife buffers and designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors around buffers to allow access to areas that are open at the Seashore. The review and adjustment of Wildlife Protection Buffers Environmental Assessment (EA) was completed in June 2015.
The 2014 Act also requires a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements at the Seashore, changes to the Seashore’s ORV special regulation as it relates to the morning opening of beaches, extending the length of seasonal ORV routes in the fall and/or spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas (VFAs).
The National Park Service (NPS) developed an EA for the second portion of the Act, which could result in a modification to the Final Rule for ORV management at the Seashore.
The NPS invites the public to provide comments on the EA during a public comment period which is open now through March 18.
The public can submit comments on the EA at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectId=59571. Select the “Open for Comment” link to view and comment on the EA.
Comments can also be mailed to: Superintendent, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC 27954.
Comments will not be accepted by fax, email, social media, or in any other manner than those specified above.
Bulk comments in hard copy or electronic formats submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.