BUXTON — For a sea turtle looking to crawl ashore at night and bury a hundred eggs on the beach, this is a very good year at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
And things are looking up for the piping plover, a threatened shorebird that lays four speckled eggs at a time on the wide open sand.
These creatures and their vulnerable offspring have a new edge over beach drivers – their two-legged competitors who flock to these same shores, year after year, in SUVs and four-wheel-drive trucks.
Sweeping new rules took effect in February to restrict beach driving at the national seashore, which covers 65 shoreline miles on three barrier islands from south of Nags Head to Ocracoke. The rules provide safeguards for federally protected birds and turtles, and they set aside long stretches of shoreline for human visitors who want to get away from vehicles.
Permits are now being required for the first time: $50 for a week of beach driving, $120 for a calendar year. In the first five months, drivers have paid more than $1 million in fees for more than 14,000 beach permits.
Off-road vehicles are banned now from miles of Outer Banks beaches where they were allowed in the past. The spots most popular with surfers and surf casters, swimmers and shell collectors are off-limits for all or much of the year – both for vehicles and for people on foot. They include the broad spits where these narrow islands end at inlets, and the long Cape Point elbow that bends around the spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
“It’s the best beach in the world, but it’s closed over a couple of birds,” said Tom Barkalow, 47, a Nash County high school science teacher, who pulled a few sea mullets from the surf on a hot Monday morning.
He and his wife, Susan, basked in a sea breeze beside their pickup truck on a half-mile stretch of sand near beach access Ramp 43 at Buxton. This strip is popular and sometimes crowded because it’s the closest spot to Cape Point – which is almost two miles to the south – where vehicles have been allowed this summer. Barkalow spends 50 to 60 days here every year.
“People have been driving on these beaches since the 1930s,” he said. “And all of a sudden, they’re shutting it down. I’m going to keep coming down here until they tell me I can’t.”
Beach drivers argue that most of the Cape Hatteras seashore beaches are hard to reach on foot. They are fighting the new restrictions with lawsuits and legislation.
The U.S. House of Representatives this spring approved a bill to restore weaker, interim rules that were put in place after the Park Service and environmental groups settled a court case in 2007. The sponsor, Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville, argues that the new rules are needlessly restrictive and will weaken the Outer Banks tourism economy. A U.S. Senate committee is considering a similar rollback proposal from North Carolina’s two senators.
Little nearby parking
Mike Murray will retire at the end of July after seven years as superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. He says the new beach access plan reflects the park service’s dual mission to protect natural resources and provide recreation. He aims to serve two kinds of visitors: those who like to bring their trucks and SUVs, and those who want to get away from vehicles.
“The plan took a big step in the right direction to promote diverse opportunities,” said Murray, 58. “People can walk on the beach without vehicles, get that remote experience with the waves and the winds. Kayak out there and feel like they’re at the end of the earth – and they have worked to get there.”
Hatteras Island residents drove on the beach long before the state Department of Transportation paved Highway 12 in the 1950s.
And visitors have always been more likely to rely on off-road vehicles here than at other beaches, for family vacations in the summer and fishing trips in the fall. The park service provides beach access ramps every few miles along N.C. 12 – most with a few parking spaces, or none at all.
“The way the seashore was managed for years, the parking area was the beach,” said Derb S. Carter Jr. of Chapel Hill, a beach driver and fisherman. He heads the North Carolina office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which led a lawsuit that forced the park service to adopt the new rules.
Three beach access ramps were closed as of last week because piping plovers and other protected birds were nesting nearby. That left Hatteras Island with just seven ramps for 41 beach miles in the national seashore; only eight miles were open for driving.
Deb and Patrick Burkhart of Harrisville, Pa., spend a week at the Outer Banks almost every summer. They catch fish in the surf with rods and cast nets, and they bring their kayaks.
“Driving on the beach is a lot of fun,” said Deb Burkhart, 48. “It’s wonderful to have all your food and coolers and all of your toys, Boogie boards and surfboards and kayaks and fishing gear.
“You add up all that gear, and it’s very heavy. So to be able to take it all to right where you’re going to spend the day is wonderful.”
This year, the Burkharts rented a cottage in the village of Avon – not on the beachfront, where the prices are steep, but closer to Pamlico Sound. To get to the beach, they drove to Ramp 43.
Unlike more heavily developed beach towns, including the Nags Head area just north of here, the seven Hatteras Island villages do not provide public access with convenient parking lots and walkways to the beach.
The park service now bans vehicles from the village beaches from April through October. To walk there, you’d have to park at Ramp 38 just south of Avon, or eight miles away at Ramp 30.
So the four-mile beach at Avon – which is part of the national seashore – has become the exclusive summertime domain of the families who pay for oceanfront cottages there.
“Either you rent a front-row cottage or you don’t access the beach,” said Bob Eakes of Buxton, whose Red Drum Tackle Shop caters to surf fishermen. He says his business has declined by 65 percent since 2007, when the park service began cutting back the times and places where beach driving was allowed.
He says his customers have been dismayed to learn that they cannot get on the beach between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., and that many of their favorite fishing spots are closed.
“I think the great disappointment is they buy the (beach driving) permit and then the reality hits them of how little beach there is to access,” Eakes said. “To close our beaches before sundown and not open them until an hour and a half after sunup is just ludicrous.”
Eakes is part of an embittered core of longtime islanders who voice seething contempt for the park service. He scoffs at park service statistics that show turtle and bird numbers improving since 2007.
“I don’t believe anything the park service has to say about this issue,” Eakes said. “They have lied through their teeth over and over so many times.”
Sea turtles thriving
The numbers are true, Murray, the seashore superintendent, says. Shorebirds and turtles appear to have benefited from the beach-driving restrictions implemented five years ago and strengthened since then.
“Turtles are doing incredibly well,” Murray said.
Last week the park service counted 160 nests laid this year by threatened and endangered sea turtles – mostly loggerheads, along with five green turtles and one Kemp’s ridley. That’s a record-high count here, with weeks still to go before the nesting season ends.
Turtle nest counts have increased steadily since 82 were recorded in 2007, the last year before the park service put limits on night-time driving.
“When there’s a lot of activity or lights on the beach at night, the turtles won’t make their nests,” said Murray, who was trained as a biologist. “They’ll crawl up on the beach but not lay eggs.”
Last year, beach driving was allowed as late as 10 p.m. This year, the cutoff time was moved to 9 p.m. so that turtles are less likely to confront noisy trucks with headlights.
Each turtle nest is marked with signs that keep people out of a 10-by-10-meter square. When a likely hatch date is approaching, about two months later, the protective buffer is widened to provide a clear runway for the hatchlings that will scuttle from the nest into the sea.
Piping plovers and other protected shorebirds are less plentiful than turtles here, but they get more attention. The piping plover, with sandy gray plumage, builds a minimal nest for its four eggs by scraping a palm-sized bowl in the sand. Park rangers post signs to keep people 75 meters away from each nest.
It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch, and another month for the chicks to fledge. Eggs and chicks are susceptible to storm damage on the open beach, and they are vulnerable to predators ranging from ghost crabs and feral cats to foxes, minks, possums and raccoons.
Plover chicks are called “precocious” because they scamper far and wide from the nest, Murray said, feeding in mud flats and moist sand that might be a few hundred meters away. So park rangers keep vehicles at least 1,000 meters away from nests with chicks. Sometimes a single nest is enough to close a nearby beach access ramp.
It turns out that piping plovers like the same spots favored by beach drivers. Half of the 22 nests reported at the seashore so far this year – and all eight of the fledged chicks – are at Cape Point.
Murray is waiting for the chicks in one more nest to fledge, so he can remove the signs and allow beach drivers to return to the north side of Cape Point. That could happen by late July or August, he said.
“This is not a situation here where people are out there ripping up the beach, tearing across the dunes, joy riding – that kind of thing,” Murray said. “For the most part, off-road vehicle use here is transportation, how to get from one place to another.”
Patrick Burkhart, Deb’s husband, dragged his kayak out of the surf and plopped it onto the sand, next to their truck. He said he didn’t mind paying the new fee to drive on the beach.
“I also don’t mind them closing access up because I think we need to share this beach with nature,” said Burkhart, 52, a geology professor at Slippery Rock University. “We love a lot of our beautiful places, and we’re loving them to death. So to reduce the impact a little doesn’t bother me.”
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