Cape Hatteras vehicle limits worked. So why overturn them?

WASHINGTON — The television that angler Frank Folb usually keeps tuned to the weather in his coastal Avon, N.C., tackle shop had a more mundane show playing Wednesday afternoon: a government panel of U.S. senators talking about bird survival, beach driving and the future of life as Folb knows it on Hatteras Island.

Up in Washington, North Carolina's two Republican senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, were working to overturn a federal court agreement that, since May, has kept miles of the state's beaches closed to anglers and sunbathers along Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Under the agreement, night driving also will be banned through much of the fall.

Dole, who's introduced legislation to overturn the agreement, testified at a Senate hearing on her bill that the court agreement threatened the local economy and had been arrived it without public input.

"This will allow the time and opportunity for all parties to work together," Dole said. "Residents and visitors, as well as the local economy, should not have to suffer in the meantime."

Folb, watching the hearing, agreed.

"We're all for protecting the birds," Folb said. "What we've lived under this summer has been unbearable for our visitors and families."

The National Park Service agreed to close the beaches to protect the nests of several endangered and threatened species — piping plovers, American oystercatchers and sea turtles. Early statistics indicate the closures are working.

Already, the number off nesting pairs of piping plovers has risen from six last summer to 11 this year, an increase which the National Park Service attributes to the new protections.

"When you use the right science, it works," said Chris Canfield, the executive director of Audubon North Carolina, which filed suit a year ago to protect the beach wildlife.

Derb Carter, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented Audubon, said surveys show there already are 97 sea turtle nests on the seashore because of the closings, nearly a record number.

"This is working exactly like scientists predicted it would," Carter said.

But the closures struck at the heart of culture on the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where people have long driven their trucks on the national shorelines to reach out-of-the-way beaches and fishing spots.

The fight could have national ramifications. Off-road vehicle use has been challenged throughout the country as environmental groups worry about the human impacts on sensitive wildlife.

"I'm always concerned to see restrictions of (off-road vehicle) use on land designated for recreational use," said U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, where a majority of the land is under federal control.

North Carolina's Burr agrees. "Part of the balance we have to look at is, what's the economic impact? Could this be economically devastating?"

The national seashore covers 67 miles of flat, sandy beaches on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean and offering some of the best fishing opportunities on the coast.

Much of the beach is unreachable from the road. So anglers pile rods, beach chairs, coolers and tackle into trucks to drive up the sand and cast into the surf. Many come overnight to catch nocturnal fish such as red drum.

Carter said only nine miles currently are closed because of the resource protection rules, though many more miles have been closed by local villages to protect summer tourists.

But the closed beaches represent some of the region's best fishing.

Anglers and tourism officials say the restrictions already have hurt the local economy. Folb said his business is down 20 percent from this time a year ago, and he said it can't all be attributed to increased gas prices. Visitors to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore are down 15 percent, said Daniel N. Wenk, deputy director of the National Park Service.

Still, Wenk said the agency opposes Dole's legislation. He said the increase in plover nests since the agreement proves it has done far more to protect the species than the previous, temporary plan that his agency had drawn up.

And while Dole testified that the agreement had left out residents, in fact the agreement had been approved by those who support off-road driving, including Dare County and the Outer Banks Preservation Association.

The deal stems from a year-long legal dispute that began last year.

Until then, Cape Hatteras National Seashore had been without a national management plan since President Nixon ordered it written in 1972.When a temporary plan finally came out in 2007, Audubon and the Defenders of Wildlife sued, saying it ignored science and would hurt the survival of bird and turtle species.

The new agreement was reached in April in U.S. District Court under Judge Terrence Boyle. It set up boundaries around bird nests, sometimes cutting off entire swaths of beach to protect nesting pairs and their chicks for weeks. The beach also will be closed at night through mid-November to protect nesting sea turtles.

It calls for the park service to develop a permanent management plan by 2011.

But local fishermen and tourists complained almost from the beginning that the best fishing spots have been cut off for long periods. When Cape Point — the tip of Hatteras Island — re-opened Tuesday after a weeks-long closure, anglers flocked to snap up flounder and red drum.

Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County commissioners, supports Dole's bill. In his testimony Wednesday, he spun a tale of Hatteras history, weaving in shipwreck-survival descendants, surfers, anglers, families into a local culture that sees folks "eeking out a living" based on tourism rather than corporate headquarters and factory jobs.

He told senators that the county had supported the agreement only because officials worried the beaches would be totally closed until 2011. "Yes, we signed it. We signed it under duress," Judge said. "We felt it was the lesser of two evils."

But Carter, the attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, defended the agreement as the best way to achieve the National Park Service's goal of preserving nature.

"Congress has wisely chosen to preserve national seashores ... to leave for future generations to enjoy," Carter testified. He told senators that in his visits to the seashore over the past 30 years, "I've observed the dramatic increase of vehicle use on that beach, and I've also observed the decline of wildlife there."

It's unclear what impact Wednesday's hearing will have on Dole's legislation. The national parks subcommittee is not scheduled to meet again this year, meaning there would be almost no chance for it to pass the bill and move it to the Senate floor before the next Congress, meaning the bil will have to be re-introduced in 2009.