New limits on beach driving will take effect along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore starting Feb. 15, and off-road drivers will be required to buy permits that could add $50 to the cost of an Outer Banks weekend.
The rules, announced Friday by the National Park Service, were drafted to protect endangered turtles and rare shorebirds that build their nests on the beach. The agency promised to improve controls on beach driving when it settled a 2007 lawsuit filed by three environmental organizations.
Fishing is the most popular purpose for taking off-road vehicles onto the sand, a park service spokeswoman said. Other beach drivers are out there to watch birds or just get away from the crowds.
Fees have not been announced but are expected to be set between $90 and $150 for a one-year beach driving permit, and between $30 and $50 for a seven-day permit. Separate permits will be issued for each vehicle, and permit holders will be required to watch an instructional video.
Surf-casters and other beachgoers are familiar with permit fees and other restrictions at other North Carolina beaches, including Nag's Head, Emerald Isle and Carolina Beach. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for 67 miles from south of Nag's Head through Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
The park service will issue announcements and update online maps in coming weeks with details about times and locations where beach driving will be allowed and where the permits can be obtained, a spokeswoman said.
The National Park Service began restricting vehicle access to parts of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches in 2007. The controls were strengthened after the agency signed a consent decree in 2008. "Wildlife has flourished under the terms of the consent decree, and we've had record numbers of several species of sea turtles and shorebirds," said Julie Youngman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"And, at the same time, tourism has flourished. This rule is going to continue that balance."
Off-road vehicles will be allowed year-round on 28 miles of the Hatteras seashore, and from mid-September to mid-March on 13 miles, the Southern Environmental Law Center said; the remaining 26 miles will be off limits to vehicles.