Now that surf fishers and vacationers are shelling out $2 million a year for permits to drive on the beach at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service has the money it needs for long-sought improvements that will make it easier for all visitors on foot and on wheels to actually reach the beach.
The agency aims to spend $8 million to $12 million to build parking areas, off-road vehicle ramps, foot trails, boardwalks and observation platforms along the 67-mile-long seashore on North Carolinas Outer Banks.
The new plan is being aired for public comment through Aug. 2, and it will be discussed at public meetings in Avon July 16 and Ocracoke July 17. The first construction could start next spring.
It has drawn praise from an environmental advocate who supports current restrictions on beach driving. But Park Service critics, who are backing federal legislation to end the required driving permits and fees, are skeptical about the proposed improvements.
With construction stretching over a projected 10 to 15 years, the beach access improvements could make a big difference for 2 million people who travel each year to the windswept barrier islands only to find that the shore itself is remote and inaccessible for anyone without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The few parking spots are scattered miles apart. For decades, most visitors have simply parked on the beach itself. The new plan would add 193 new parking spaces along the beach highway, N.C. 12.
Parking areas are important, said Walker Golder of Wilmington, assistant state director for the Audubon Society. Otherwise, people end up parking on the side of the road and getting stuck in the sand and all that stuff, just trying to go to the beach.
Once you find a place to leave the family car, you can face a long slog to the surf through a few hundred yards of deep, hot sand and across dunes armored with cactus and thorn bushes.
That means trampling the vegetation, which lessens the ability of the dune to hold up during storm surges, said Barclay Trimble, the Hatteras seashore superintendent.
Also in the plan are five footpaths from parking spots to the shoreline, and 11 handicap-accessible boardwalks.
A difficult trek
Except for a few small camping areas and visitor centers, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is primitive and has seen little in the way of capital improvements over the past few decades. Access to the shore is focused on a string of simple vehicle ramps unpaved tracks between gaps in the dunes separated from each other by several miles.
To protect nesting birds and turtles, and to accommodate visitors who dont enjoy seeing vehicles on the beach, the National Park Service instituted sweeping restrictions on beach driving in February 2012. Permits are required, hours are limited, and vehicles are banned from many miles of Outer Banks beaches where they were allowed in the past.
Additional areas are marked off-limits during spring and summer nesting seasons. The spots most popular with surfers, swimmers and shell collectors are inaccessible for all or much of the year, both for vehicles and people on foot.
The improvements outlined last week include five new vehicle ramps that would restore driving access to parts of the beach that are cut off under the new restrictions.
It will be more accessible than it is today, but it is still far less accessible than it was two years ago, said Jim Keene of Nags Head, a former president of the N.C. Beach Buggy Association.
Keene doesnt like the fact that driving permit fees will pay for boardwalks and parking lots to benefit tourists and families who dont pay those fees.
If theyre going to build more than 100 new parking spots for pedestrian users, they should charge for the parking and not charge the people who are not using the parking lots, Keene said.
Keenes group and many Outer Banks residents have steadfastly opposed the beach-driving restrictions, saying they hurt the local tourism economy.
They support perennial efforts in Congress including a bill that cleared a Senate committee last month to roll back the regulations and eliminate the permits and fees.
Allen Burrus of Buxton, a Dare County commissioner, voices the skepticism of Outer Banks natives who have long regarded the Park Service as an army of occupation.
Yes, we want to see more boardwalks and, yes, we want to see more ramps, Burrus said. But to be honest with you, we were dealing with these issues in the 1980s, and they promised the same type of stuff. And its never been done. These promises have been made and broken for 25 years or more.
Golder, the Audubon Society spokesman, said the beach access regulations balance the interests of wildlife protection, the tourism economy and all kinds of Outer Banks visitors.
If Congress eliminates the driving permits, he said, the Park Service wont be able to collect the fees that would pay for all those new ramps, boardwalks and parking spots.
The current regulation is working for wildlife, and it is working for the economy, Golder said. Any effort to change it is misguided.
But Burrus isnt counting on the Park Service to follow through with its plans.
One of the reasons we started being a lot more active in Congress is that they werent getting any of it done, Burrus said.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier