Starting next month, a drive onto the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore will require more than a capable vehicle and a little sense of adventure.
Motorists also will need to buy a permit.
The National Park Service announced Friday that rules designed to limit beach access and protect the environment will require drivers to pay between $90 and $150 for an annual permit, with a weekly permit going for about one-third of that. Visitors also will be required to watch a seven-minute educational video at one of the designated visitor centers.
In addition, the Park Service is making 26 miles along the 67-mile-long seashore permanently off-limits as of Feb. 15, when the new rules kick in. It’s the first permanent ban of stretches of beach in the park.
The restrictions come after years of debate that have pitted locals who cherish a restriction-free tradition against environmental groups that sued in 2007 to force the Park Service to better protect turtle and bird nesting habitats.
“The new rules will ensure that Cape Hatteras continues to provide enjoyment to beach users while protecting the unique wildlife that call the seashore home,” Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a
combined news release from the Defenders of Wildlife, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Audubon North Carolina.
The environmental groups say tourism and wildlife have benefited since 2008, when temporary rules on beach access were put in place. Night driving during nesting seasons has been banned, and the Park Service has been able to block access to certain spots if birds or turtles begin nesting there.
The groups cite the fact that in 2004, only 44 sea turtle nests were recorded, but in 2010, a record-breaking 153 were logged. An additional 147 were recorded in 2011, according to the release.
The fate of the piping plover, a sparrow-size shorebird, also had been a concern. No chicks survived long enough to learn to fly in 2002 or 2004, but survival increased to 15 chicks in 2010 and 10 in 2011. The environmental groups also cited figures showing that tourism numbers held up even after the earlier beach restrictions.
Although environment advocates were pleased by the new rules, opponents of limiting access were disappointed.
“I’m not happy with any of it,” said Natalie Kavanagh, whose family owns Frisco Rod and Gun on Hatteras Island. “You just want to throw up your hands in frustration.”
Kavanagh’s business will suffer as it has for the four years since the Park Service began putting limits on the beach driving, she said.
Bob Eakes, who owns Red Drum Tackle in Buxton, called 2011 his worst in 35 years, citing Hurricane Irene as well as the beach rules.
“We have had a tremendously huge loss from the Park Service rules,” he said. “I just don’t know if I can stay in business.”
Another concern of opponents: Even with a permit, some visitors could get to their favorite stretch of beach and find that it’s off-limits because it has reached its capacity of vehicles.
On Hatteras Island, thousands of tourists arriving on Saturdays for a weeklong stay could endure lines waiting to see the educational video and get a permit, Kavanagh said. She fears that many will not bother.
Anglers who might want to spend a shorter time on the beach will find there’s no one- or two-day permit available. Some favorite fishing and swimming spots also fall in areas that are set to be permanently off-limits, she said.
“It’s going to be a nightmare, especially for the weekend vacationers,” said Ron Saunders, a director with the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, a group of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts that supports open beach access.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one of the few such sites that allows beach driving. Most that allow it require permits, said Cyndy Holda, spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
Technically, Cape Hatteras was supposed to implement a beach driving ordinance 40 years ago, after a presidential order was issued in 1972. For one reason or another, one had never been established.
The 2007 lawsuit changed that.
Pilot writer Lee Tolliver contributed to this report.
Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Jeff Hampton