Things change quickly here.  It’s just the nature of the place.  For a string of islands that run nearly the length of North Carolina from the Virginia border in the north to Cape Lookout in the south, adapting to fluctuations of wind and wave is a way of life, and every species that finds food and shelter there has had to find a way to do just that or perish in the beautiful, but unforgiving, intersection of sky, sea, and sand.  But that doesn’t mean change is easy, and the growing pains at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service site that encompasses a large portion of the Outer Banks from Kitty Hawk to Ocracoke Island, have been more difficult than most.

The issue is access, specifically access by 4-wheel drive Off-Road Vehicles on the beaches of the National Seashore.  For years ORVS have had the run of the place, year-round access to nearly the entirety of the 67 miles of beachfront that CHNS ostensibly protects.  The vast majority of traffic was associated with surf fishermen, who haul coolers, tackle, and chairs out to far flung parts of the seashore in massive SUVs and trucks.  On busy holiday weekends, thousands crowded the beaches such that it seemed more parking lot than National Park.  Needless to say, very little was done to take into consideration other users of the seashore; birders, shellers, sunbathing families, surfers, and especially the bird species that nest on the ephemeral spits of sand.

Needless to say, this has long been a contentious issue out here. Beach drivers and fisherman claim an almost divine right to haul their gear and coolers out to the farthest reaches of the National Seashore, and it probably wouldn’t surprise any of you to know that such activity generally has a detrimental effect on the other, longer term, residents of the beach.  In the past, small but stable populations of Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers and three species of tern (Least, Common, and Gull-billed) could be found on the islands.  All have declined, and that decline has been inversely proportional to the increase in beach traffic.  This is unequivocal.

The species of most concern from the fed’s perspective (which, lets be honest, is really all that matters on federal land), and the one which eventually became the lightning rod of criticism, was the Piping Plover.   Charadrius melodus are especially vulnerable to excessive ORV use because they make their nests in simple scrapes on the ground and are easily deterred by high ORV traffic. Their young are precocial, able to forage for themselves mere hours after hatching.  As such, tiny birds can be crushed beneath the wheels of vehicles.  Wheels that scatter and destroy the wrack where they forage.  And trash and fish guts left behind by even a few careless fishermen attracts gulls, raccoons, and feral cats that depredate the fledglings.  NPS has tried over the years to help, but every attempt is met by massive backlash from some residents and activist groups who see anything short of free and unregulated use of the National Seashore as a thruway with Piping Plover speedbumps as federal encroachment of traditional values by business hating, tourist killing tree-huggers.

It got so bad that in recent years we’ve seen neighbor turned against neighbor.  Bird watchers and NPS rangers vilified. Official rule-making committees formed to address the situation that needed professional mediators called in from across the United States to keep the peace.  Negotiations between stakeholders become bogged down in minutia while the status quo, overly deferential to ORV groups and users, continued such that some groups had an interest in running out the clock.  In short, if Cape Hatteras National Seashore was to fulfill its mission of securing federally protected species within its borders, something fairly drastic needed to be done.

In 2007, when a lawsuit was brought against the National Park Service by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Defenders of Wildlife claiming that NPS was failing to adequately address declining populations of protected species.  A federal judge agreed, instituting a consent decree that closed some of the beaches during part of the year when the shorebirds, particularly the Piping Plovers but also Oystercatchers and Least Terns, were nesting.  Predictably, some folks went apoplectic.  The rancor was particularly bad early on, but as the last two years passed NPS and others have been monitoring the situation.  Tourism declined, but it did everywhere largely due to the fact that the world economy more or less fell off a cliff, but it still remained higher than the national average.  People still came to fish despite the closure of some beaches.

And crucially, the birds, given an opportunity to recover, finally broke free of their large tired, gas belching shackles and in 2010 and bred their way to the best single season they’d had since people began keeping serious records.  Piping Plovers were up.  Least Terns were up.  Oystercatchers were up.  By that metric the consent decree was an unabashed success.  Moreso, by 2010, tourism had crept back, and according to the Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau more money was spent on the Outer Banks through August than any year previously.  By all accounts, 2010 was win/win.  Every datapoint since 2007 indicates that a reasonable compromise can be reached.

I feel like all this backstory is relevant in response to the anxiously awaited release of the NPS’s Final ORV Management Plan earlier this week, nearly 700 pages in all (readers suffering from insomnia can read it here).  I’ve tried, with mixed success, to read it for myself but I’m fortunate that others with more time on their hands can give me the highlights.

In short, environmental organizations in the state have advocated a stricter interpretation of the consent decree currently in place, and they’ll likely be disappointed to see that NPS didn’t go that way (the sticking point being essentially just under 13 miles ruled “seasonally accessible” that environmental groups would like to see closed year-round), but what they got from NPS was pretty good considering any codification of even minor beach closures would likely engender the same primal scream response from the all-or-nothing ORV activists.  It’s not the end by any means, but it’s a good start, and if nothing else will set a new baseline as to what we can expect in the way of breeding success for many of the species of concern for adjustment of management practices down the road.  All I know is that if it means Common Terns will be breeding in North Carolina again, I’ll call that a victory.

This new management plan may be a change from what many people understand as fair use of the National Seashore, but it sets in motion a vision for the Outer Banks that’s more sustainable.  There’s only so many trucks you can allow on a beach before you lose the character than makes it so special.  And once that’s gone, it’s nearly impossible to get back.  At the very least, those of us with a stake in the outcome should be able to prove that we’re as resilient as anything else that lives out there.

The islands, after all, demand nothing less.

Written by Nate
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.