Ford: Beach driving, fishing, sharing

steve.ford@newsobserver.comJuly 22, 2012 

  • Steve Ford

    Steve Ford, The News & Observer's editorial page editor, has been with the paper since 1981, first as an editor in the news department and, since 1986, as a member of the editorial staff. He has overall responsibility for the opinion pages, reporting to the publisher.

    Ford grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from Yale University in 1968. An Army veteran, he served in Vietnam as a photographer. He and his wife, Jeanne, live in Cary. They have three grown sons and two grandchildren. He can be reached at sford@newsobserver.com. or at 829-4512.

If there’s fish on the menu, it gets my attention. And while the only fishing I’ve ever done was as a kid, invited from time to time by my well-meaning father and grandfather to sit with them in a boat out in the middle of the Indiana lake where we went each summer – alternately bored and grossed out at the indignities visited on bait and prey alike – I admire the angler’s skill and conservation ethic.

Lake fishing, either with a rod and reel or cane pole and bobber, from a boat or a pier, hoping to land a nice bass or bluegill, has its own rituals and its own rewards for the patient and the cunning.

The North Carolina angler has many more choices than his Indiana counterpart. Well, you might say so – an ocean will do that for you. And when it comes to rituals, perhaps none is so deeply ingrained than piling all the gear needed for a day’s worth of surf fishing into a truck or SUV and driving down the beach to find a congenial spot. The reward comes when drum, bluefish, flounder or another of their finny compadres is hauled from the waves.

On the Outer Banks, once formidably remote, beach driving has a long history. It was part of the package when Cape Hatteras National Seashore was fashioned from Bodie, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. And because of the superb fishing, the economy within the string of little communities tucked into the Seashore has tilted toward fishermen’s needs.

Motels, cottages, restaurants, gas stations, bait and tackle shops – the fortunes of all have been boosted by the popularity of recreational fishing, specifically the surf fishing that draws sportsmen from far and wide.

Anyone is free to venture onto the beach on their own hind legs. But the quintessential Outer Banks surf fishing experience for many has become intertwined with the convenience of a four-wheel-drive vehicle to transport rods, coolers, chairs and all the other accoutrements of a proper outing.

So in the face of that tradition, the federal government wants to make beach driving within the Seashore’s 65 miles more the exception than the rule? For the sake of some turtles and birds? Congress to the rescue! Or so many of those fishermen and the business folks who cater to them hope.

Populations of sea turtles and shore birds that nest on and near the beach have shown signs of recovering from depletion evident in the mid-2000s. The trend may be more than local, but it does match up with stricter driving rules that took effect in 2008, under the terms of a federal court order.

The National Park Service in the meantime oversaw a full-fledged environmental review to work out permanent rules meant to reconcile the agency’s obligation to protect wildlife with the parallel obligation to let people use the Seashore for recreation, fishing included.

Those rules took effect in March. As The N&O’s Bruce Siceloff related in a thorough report last Sunday, some beach driving is allowed, but with significant restrictions, and permits are required.

The predictable pushback came in legislation sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., who has the Outer Banks in his district. The bill would return the Park Service’s rules to where they were prior to that court order. Environmental groups are aghast – since the court order stemmed from their lawsuit claiming the old rules were ineffective.

The battle is being fought chiefly on economic turf. Oh, the plaintive cries from those whose livelihoods are tied to surf fishing, for which beach driving is seen by many to be as important as a line with a hook. And there are the moans of the fishermen themselves. To be sure, a giant cooler filled with ice isn’t something that anyone would want to schlepp down through the sand.

But here’s the deal: Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s tourist market isn’t made up exclusively of fishermen. Not by a long shot.

Many people want to visit the Outer Banks to get closer to nature. And that doesn’t mean a beach where vehicles rumble and grind, carving ruts, spewing exhaust and sometimes leaving a nice dollop of crankcase drippings. Overall visitation to the Seashore remains strong, with Hatteras Island’s occupancy stats for the first five months of 2012 down a modest 2 percent from the same period in 2011. (Gains in Avon helped offset some other declines.)

Might the new rules spell curtains for the occasional business within the Seashore that depends on fishing and that can’t adapt to an evolving clientele? Yes, that could happen. But nobody wants to see fishing disappear, and people will continue to spend money so they can partake.

This all boils down to a matter of balance. Conscientious anglers appreciate the need to strike that balance, safeguarding species while some people test their sporting skills with an eye on what’s for dinner and others refresh their souls.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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