Washington — U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan are backing an effort to reopen the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to off-road vehicles.
The two North Carolina senators filed the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act, which would scrap rules that went into effect a year ago and reinstate an interim management strategy governing off-road vehicle use on southern Outer Banks beaches.
“Restricting ORV use on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore negatively impacts local communities and the local economy,” Burr said in a statement. “We must not block our citizens’ access to North Carolina’s scenic treasures. I am confident we can come to a compromise that allows people to have access, while at the same time addressing any potential environmental concerns.”
The interim rules were put in place in 2007 while the National Park Service developed a long-term management plan for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the Park Service to manage off-road vehicle access to the beach, as required by law.
A federal judge approved a consent decree in 2008 that required all seashore ramps to be closed overnight to off-road vehicles during sea turtle nesting season, created buffers near environmentally sensitive locations and ruled that deliberate violations of the buffers would result in an expanded restricted area.
About 42 percent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open to off-road vehicles, while another 39 percent is off limits to beach driving. The rest is open to vehicles at times, depending on tourism and animal nesting concerns.
A year ago, the Park Service implemented its long-term management plan, requiring people to obtain permits to use off-road vehicles on portions of the beach. The agency sold about 7,500 annual permits and close to 20,000 weekly permits last year.
“Our coast is a key part of North Carolina's tourism economy and a favorite destination for families from across the country,” Hagan said in a statement. “I will keep working with Sen. Burr to ensure that unnecessary federal regulations do not harm Dare County’s economy, which is dependent on beach access.”
Environmental groups panned the pending legislation, saying tourism and the number of turtle nests in Dare County have gone up under the new rules.
“The Cape Hatteras beach-driving rule strikes a balance that led to record-setting success for both tourism and sea turtles,” Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “The rule’s a proven win-win for both the local economy and wildlife, so this congressional bill to overturn it makes no sense.”
If Congress approves the legislation, the Park Service would have to develop a long-term off-road vehicle management plan for the use of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore by the public.