New Bern, NC –
INTRO - A preliminary injunction filed in U-S District Court last month could severely restrict driving on Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches if a judge grants the plaintiffs request. George Olsen has more.
Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sought the preliminary injunction in order to protect threatened and endangered shorebirds. An SELC press release said the plaintiffs are seeking to stop the use of off-road vehicles or ORVs in six areas that constitute about 12 percent of the National Seashore. Foot traffic would still be allowed. But the areas that plaintiffs are seeking to restrict from vehicle traffic are among the Seashore's most popular for recreational fishermen.
We've gotten feedback from many business operators, hotel owners that's the heart and soul of the tourist industry in Cape Hatteras. By closing those areas we think will have a devastating effect on the local tourist economy, so that's our big concern. Those are the areas they want to close and the effects could be disastrous.
Larry Liebesman is a partner in the firm Holland & Knight which is acting as counsel in opposing the injunction for Dare & Hyde County governments and local business and user groups. The SELC agrees that the sites they're seeking to close are the seashore's most popular fishing spots. But they say interim rules governing beach driving are insufficient and the needs of the shorebirds are immediate enough that waiting for final rules isn't an option.
Particularly where you consider that two species did not nest on the seashore completely gold billed terns and black skimmers so we can't wait three more years and risk other species not nesting on the seashore as well, so the interim plan that is in place now is not adequate and not providing the protections that are necessary.
Geoff Gisler is an associate attorney with the SELC. Plaintiffs are seeking greater weight be placed in a report by the U-S Geological Survey rather than the interim plan regulating beach driving that the National Park Service produced and put in place last summer. The Geological Survey report he cites recommends more pre-nesting closure of beaches shutting down beach driving before birds arrive which in the interim plan is only provided to areas used by piping plovers protected under the Endangered Species Act for the last three breeding seasons.
The other birds, like the American Oyster Catcher and the Colonial Waterbirds, those birds don't get protection until they establish a nest, which is a big problem because when a bird comes in and its trying to establish a territory, out-compete other birds for a spot and attract a mate and create a nest, that's enough of a challenge with the inter-species competition without having ORVs driving through at the same time.
Liebesman contends the interim plan the Park Service is currently using took into account the U-S Geological Survey report but balanced it with other policy and regulatory factors they were obligated to consider. Likewise, he says any decline in shorebird numbers can't be attributed to any one factor.
If you look at the data and the analysis there are many factors that address the status of these various species out there and effect their productivity predation, the weather, climate, the changing coastline, there are a lot of different factors out there and the allegations that ORVs are the problem is clearly overstated.
He adds that piping plover pair numbers are the highest this year since 1999 and is not aware of any reports of bird nests being crushed by ORVs. But that direct threat is perhaps not the plaintiff's chief concern.
Some of the specific problems are a lot of the foraging that goes along goes on for the chicks goes on in the rack line, the area where the seaweed and the natural debris from the ocean washes up. We've all seen it on the beach shore. That area is home to a lot of invertebrates if it's left undisturbed. If it's driven over by ORVs, it gets broken down, the invertebrates aren't there, the birds have nowhere to feed.
The Seashore does not have a permanent beach driving management plan despite being required to have one, though permanent plans are currently being discussed with all sides at the table. Whether those discussions will continue with the current interim plan or the plaintiff's preference in place could be determined soon. Geoff Gisler with the SELC says a hearing on the injunction should take place early April. I'm George Olsen.