WASHINGTON — As the last of the summer's piping plover chicks wobbled from their nests early this month along Cape Hatteras, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan signed on to a controversial bill that would lift many of the beach closures protecting the rare birds from off-road vehicles.
Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, disappointed environmentalists, who said they had hoped she would oppose the measure.
“Hagan's signing on to the bill is a surprise,” said Derb Carter, director of the N.C. and S.C. office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed suit two years ago to protect the birds.
“We just would have expected her to have a broader understanding about the national seashore than ORV (off-road vehicle) users, which is what the bill is meant to protect,” he said.
The legislation's lead sponsor is Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who tried to push through identical legislation last year with then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole, also a Republican.
It would allow more access to popular fishing spots along Cape Hatteras National Seashore from April through August. Many of the spots can be reached only by walking or driving.
Last year the bill failed in a Senate committee vote. It's unclear how Hagan's support as a Democrat would change a vote count.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Farmville Republican, has identical legislation in the House.
For now, an April 30, 2008, legal decision called a consent decree allows the National Park Service to close many stretches of beach from April through the end of nesting season – usually late July or early August.
The closures protect the plovers along with oystercatchers, nesting terns, black skimmers and sea turtles, Carter said.
“It's been another good year for wildlife, so the protections are meeting their intended goal,” he said.
The legislation would overturn the consent decree and revert to a previous draft protection plan that is less restrictive to beach driving.
Hagan supported Burr's bill in an effort to balance the needs of both the wildlife and the local tourism economy, said her spokeswoman, Stephanie Allen.
“The restrictions have been in place for the last two years, and a lot of the local community has talked to the senator about how their business is suffering,” Allen said. “The entire hospitality industry is struggling.”
Rob Alderman, a fisherman and shop owner in Buxton, said the beach closures hurt Hatteras Island businesses beyond bait and tackle shops. He said Hagan's support could be crucial to allowing beach driving.
“It's very important that Democrats sign off on this,” he said.
“The environmental groups may be disappointed, but you can't have it all without hurting somebody, especially in this economy.”