June 21, 2008

2011 is Too Late for ORV Plan

A COMMITTEE OF 30 people - 60, if you count their alternates - is helping the National Park Service hash out a plan to manage off- road vehicle use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Park officials are under a federal judge's order to produce a document by Dec. 31, 2010, with the final regulation set for completion by April 1, 2011.

By some standards, that's a relatively tight deadline - given the number of people involved, the range of views they represent, the heaps of data they must review, and the federal guidelines on public comment periods they must follow.

But the schedule doesn't fit the current situation on the Outer Banks.

In April, two national environmental groups, the National Park Service, a local coalition of ORV users and officials for Dare and Hyde counties endorsed a compromise they called a "just, fair, adequate, and equitable resolution" to a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups.

In general, the agreement - later approved as a consent decree by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle - temporarily bans off- road vehicles and pedestrians in areas where vulnerable shorebirds and sea turtles are nesting.

Today, the compromise is viewed as anything but "just, fair, adequate and equitable" by some of the parties involved.

Many ORV users, particularly people who like to drive up to the surf and cast a fishing line, are incensed by the extent of the closures. Some Outer Banks business owners report a steep decline in customers and blame it on the consent decree.

But the beach closures aren't as dramatic as some folks portray them. And critics of the agreement would be wise to ponder the message they're sending to potential visitors by creating the inaccurate impression that the Outer Banks is "closed" to anything but birds and turtles.

Some popular fishing spots - such as portions of Cape Point and south Ocracoke - are temporarily closed. But 23.9 miles of the park's 66-plus miles of seashore were still open and accessible to ORV users as of Thursday, according to National Park Service spokeswoman Cyndy Holda. The majority of the off-limit miles were related to normal seasonal or safety closures; 11.6 miles were inaccessible because of the protection measures outlined in the agreement.

For pedestrians, about 50 miles of shoreline were fully accessible as of Thursday. Roughly 11 of the off-limit miles were related to wildlife protection measures. (Updates and maps are available at www.nps.gov/caha.)

The agreement, as cumbersome as it is to implement and follow, remains a sensible, short-term approach to protecting the park's natural resources. It's preferable to an alternative proposed by three North Carolina lawmakers - Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones - to have Congress kill the deal in favor of a weaker interim plan adopted last year.

Nevertheless, the 2011 deadline for a permanent ORV management plan is too distant. The National Park Service, the Defenders of Wildlife, the National Audubon Society and others - including Judge Boyle - should look for ways to fast-track the creation of a quality plan.

The goal, from the beginning, has been to balance the park's recreational uses with natural resource protection. The sooner a consensus is reached on how to do that, the better off all residents of and visitors to the Outer Banks - people, birds, turtles - will be.

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