May 9, 2008

ORV So Derb Carter won, whats next

I thought the opening of Katherine Kozak's front page article in the Va. Pilot really captured the ORV situation well:
"Sometime before or on Thursday morning, a shorebird called a least tern laid a single egg in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A National Park Service ranger spotted it at the end of Ramp 45 to Cape Point, a corner of the Outer Banks well known for surf fishing.

Buffers were quickly installed around the nest, making the road behind the dunes inaccessible to off-road-vehicle traffic. Even though much of Cape Point technically remains open, there is no way to get to it anymore."
The article details how everyone is playing their role perfectly. The business community is complaining about the environmental groups and the economic impact of the closures. The environmental groups are pointing to the flexible nature of the plan, while the park service is saying what I alwys said they would say: "the consent decree buffers are larger and non-discretionary,"; read "the judge made me do it". Everything is normal and everyone is saying exactly what you would expect and they are all focusing on the wrong thing.
It is time to start thinking about what happens next. It is safe to say that the current situation is probably the best we will see for some time in terms of unregulated ORV access. We can bemoan our condition or we can start thinking about how to adapt to it.
It strikes me that there are two reasons that ORV access is so important on Hatteras Island. First the geography makes it unrealistic to walk to the Point or Hatteras Inlet. The NPS simply owns too much land between us and the fish. Secondly, there is little or no public access parking on all of Hatteras Island. The Visitors Bureau lists 3 sites, I know there are more, but not many more. In the northern villages people can walk to the beach via private or semi public accesses but down south it is harder. Everything has been built on the assumption that people will drive to the beach. Ocraocoke operates on the same principal. There is more beach parking in one access in Nags Head or KDH than on all of Ocracoke. That is part of the appeal. Drive to your spot and set up camp, its convenient and its comfortable and its over.
We need a new model for accessing the beach and the fish on Hatteras Island. We can talk all we want we aren't getting the old model back.
One part of the answer is a quick investment in public access parking on NPS property. The County can help fund it. The County must help fund it, it won't get done otherwise. Make it as easy to get to the beach in Buxton as it is in Nags Head. and not just at the Lighthouse. Start scattering accesses from Salvo south. I am not an expert on access on Hatteras Island. Somebody let me know if I am missing something. If we can't drive on the beach then let us drive to the beach and park.
Beach access is one thing but access to the environmentally sensitive fishing hot spots requires a different strategy. Lets think about the interests of the various parties. The environmentalists want to protect birds from interference and they want to study the birds as well. The Park Service wants to comply with the law, meet the mission of recreation and conservation. They both want money to accomplish their goals. The visitors and businesses want to people to be able to get to the fishing grounds, people who are bringing with them the one thing everyone wants, MONEY. What this suggests is a system that transports people to the Point in a respobsible fashion, acceptable to both the E. groups and the NPS. The days of parking your Escalade in the surf and getting beer and bait from the built-in cooler are over but fishing on the Cape need not be.
When I moved to Nags Head 30 years ago, I met several people who got paid to drive fisherman up and down the beach and help them catch fish. They were called fishing guides. They knew the beach and they knew the fish. The advent of the SUV, the curtailing of beach driving (in 1977 you could still drive on the beach all year round) and the lack of fish have combined to reduce demand for guides. There are still a few around but the breed is dying.
In the post consent decree world, a fishing guide or at least a licensed NPS franchisee might be the vehicle that gets people to the fish. If we can't all be trusted with vehicles on the beach, then let the NPS tell us who is responsible and what they have to promise to be allowed to drive past nesting shore birds. There is no one right model. This could be a single 4 wheel drive or it could be a jitney service taking people to an established camp at the Point that has sanitary facilities, supplies and supervision. Needless to say the franchisees would PAY for the privilege but that money could be dedciated to species protection and habitat development. There might even be a way that the public could qualify for access, think duck blinds in Pea Island Refuge. Sound far fetched, it may be but this is how we need to be thinking, we don't need to be thinking that somehow "Doc"Brown is going to come along in his Delorian and transport us back to 1950. It is just not apt to happen. We need a new model for access and we need to figure it out pretty fast. We have a chance to use Negotiated Rulemaking to implement a new economic model but only if we figure it out first.
Spend the rest of the night complaining about the disaster that this season may become, it is very real and very important. When you wake up tomorrow start thinking about how we can adapt to our new limits. People still want to go to the beach, they still want to catch fish. We have beach and we have fish. How can we get them together, how can we comply with the new limits and how can we make enough money to live while we do it.
That is the problem. We will either find our own answer or have one imposed on us. The choice is up to us. Derb Carter won ... the first round, we all can win ... if we want to.
Note: I wrote this whole article without pointing out that despite the lack of public access on Hatteras Island they still have more than the Town That Won't Let Me Go to the Beach; .....almost.

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