Editorial

Beach balance

Limits on beach driving protect species and visitors’ experience of the natural Outer Banks.

July 16, 2012 

Let’s have a doff of the hat to Deb and Patrick Burkhart of Harrisville, Pa., visitors to the North Carolina Outer Banks who complain less about beach access restrictions for motor vehicles (thanks to new federal rules for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore) than some native Tar Heels do. Sure, they know the advantages of beach visitors being able to go about their driving business.

“Driving on the beach is a lot of fun,” Deb Burkhart told The News & Observer’s Bruce Siceloff. “It’s wonderful to have all your food and coolers and all of your toys.”

But her husband noted, after pulling his kayak out of the surf, that he didn’t mind paying a new fee to drive on the beach, and that he further didn’t mind the National Park Service closing some areas at different times depending upon the nesting and breeding habits of sea turtles and birds.

Alas, some people do mind, including one fellow who told Siceloff he thought the changes weren’t worth it for “a couple of birds.”

More than a couple of birds are at stake, of course. The Park Service says, and has the numbers to prove it, that turtle and bird species that have been under stress along the coast are doing much better than they were in 2007.

And what exactly is wrong with that? Well, in the eyes of some North Carolina lawmakers in Congress, the rules are excessive and will hurt – you guessed it – tourism. They’re pushing a pull-back.

Fishing for convenience

There we go. The dollar comes first.

That’s a shortsighted view and for wildlife, a cruel one.

Sure, the rules could be rescinded and vehicles could barrel up and down Ocracoke, Hatteras and Bodie islands, and perhaps no one would notice any differences for a long time. But there would be changes in the coastal ecology as populations of turtles and birds diminished. And for what?

Basically, out of concern that reduced access for vehicles would somehow hurt the economy of the Outer Banks, where tourism is overwhelmingly the most important industry. Surf fishermen in particular like being able to drive to their favorite spots so they can bring all their gear.

Catering to those fishermen is an important business on the Banks. Fishing gives the tackle shops, restaurants, motels and rental cottages a ready supply of customers. And it’s true that the Banks represent a hybrid of developed and undeveloped areas.

Still, limiting vehicles doesn’t mean fishing must come to a halt. And it makes the Outer Banks that much more attractive to other visitors who value the openness of these beautiful beaches, the escape they offer from the crowds and the cars. It’s what sets them apart from other beach vacation places. And it is what draws many people to this part of the coast.

Nature at the beach

They’re not there for amusement parks or shopping malls or boardwalks or to rub oily shoulders with thousands of other tourists. They’re looking for that remote seashore experience, and they come there because they can’t find it in that many other areas along the East or West coasts anymore.

Driving on the beach is an Outer Banks tradition, dating to earlier decades when numbers of people were not as great and protection of the environment was not as high a priority. In the old days the beach was sometimes the only route up and down the coast. But times and priorities have changed.

Having a reasonable discussion about the driving rules, perhaps even making minor tweaks if credible evidence shows that the fragile environment will not be harmed by changes, is fine. But to attack the rules and try to weaken them without discussion is not smart in the short or long term.

The Outer Banks are part of North Carolina’s identity, and a key to the financial base of the tourism industry. Both will be hurt by precipitous action that could endanger the creatures of the area and the fragile nature of the Banks themselves. These rules are still new. They should be given a chance to work.

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