Press Release | July 30, 2008

Carter testifies to Senate: Legislation would undermine protection for Cape Hatteras and agreement on beach driving

Legislation that threatens to undermine an agreement on beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore reached among beach drivers, local governments, the National Park Service and environmentalists could also thwart successful recovery efforts of birds and sea turtles, according to testimony given by Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center to members of the Senate.

In testimony given today to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Carter urged members to oppose legislation introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr that would return Cape Hatteras to an inadequate management strategy and undo the scientifically based and legally binding agreement that is already seeing an increase in the number of birds and sea turtle nests on the seashore this season. Carter reminded members that only 9 miles of the Seashore are closed due to the consent decree, with more than 53 miles open for driving or pedestrian use.

Less than three months after the implementation of an agreed-upon consent decree that requires scientifically supported management measures on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the number of birds nesting on the Seashore is continuing to show preliminary signs of recovery.  According to the National Park Service, the number of piping plovers on the beach increased from six pairs in 2007 to 11 pairs, the highest number of piping plovers on the Seashore since 1998.  Black skimmers are nesting again this year on Seashore beaches, after failing to nest at all last year. And 92 successful sea turtles nests have been identified on the beach so far this season, up from 82 all last season.

Furthermore, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau reports that May 2008 saw a more than 6 percent increase in revenue from visitor occupancy and a more than 5 percent increase in meals revenue over the previous year. The beach closures resulting from the consent decree went into effect in April.

The consent decree, agreed upon in April by Dare and Hyde counties, the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance (a group representing ORV users), environmentalists and the Park Service, is based upon recommendations developed by the Park Service’s own scientists. It calls for portions of the beach around bird nesting areas to be temporarily closed. When the nesting season is finished, the protected closures for breeding birds can be reopened. While this approach requires more intensive monitoring efforts by the National Park Service, it also provides the most flexibility, as closures are limited in location and time.

The consent decree was approved in April by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle and resolved the pending lawsuit that charged an interim National Park Service plan to protect wildlife from the impacts of beach driving along the Seashore was inadequate. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society in that suit. Carter’s testimony today also reflected the views of The Wilderness Society.

According to a National Park Service report issued July 24, approximately nine miles of the 66 mile long Seashore are temporarily closed because of protective measures for nesting birds and turtles.  Additional areas are closed to vehicles because they are not safe to drive on, or are on areas such as lifeguard beaches or in front of the villages.  Even with these closures, 26.8 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore remain open to vehicles. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to nesting shorebirds, such as the threatened piping plover, the common tern, and the American oystercatcher. The number of colonial waterbirds nesting on Seashore beaches declined from a high of 1,311 nests in 1997 to 212 nests in 2007 – an 84 percent decline in 10 years. Last year, two of the imperiled shorebird species, gull-billed terns and black skimmers, failed to nest on the Seashore. Since 1995, common terns have been all but eliminated at the Seashore while American oystercatchers have seen their numbers decline by almost one half since 1999.