Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area

Sportfishing Access in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area

Updated September 2017

Current Situation

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Area on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is one of the premier surf fishing locations in the United States, attracting anglers from all across the country for once-in-a-lifetime fishing opportunities. Off-road vehicle (ORV) access to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area (CHNSRA) is essential for surf fishing from the beaches, as well as for many other recreational activities. Over the last decade, the National Park Service (NPS) has made management decisions to protect shorebirds and endangered species, such as the piping plover, that restrict ORV usage and therefore access to fishing.

The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and partners have worked on a variety of fronts to support sensible conservation measures that don’t unnecessarily restrict fishing access at the seashore. In 2016, the NPS modified its ORV regulations to further increase access in the fall and early spring, convert some vehicle free areas to seasonal access and provide a “behind the dunes” route to Cape Point that should reduce the impact of significant erosion that has limited access at times. These and other changes the NPS recently made have all been positive, but ASA and local groups believe there are more areas that could be opened without impeding endangered species recovery.

Our Position

ASA supports sensible, science-based conservation measures to recover endangered species in the CHNSRA that do not unnecessarily restrict public access.  ASA believes the NPS can provide adequate protection for the beach environment while allowing Outer Banks residents and visitors to access the beaches for surf fishing.

ASA believes NPS’s management decisions should include careful consideration of the economic hardship beach closures cause for sportfishing businesses and restrict access only when clearly necessary for endangered species recovery. The economic wellbeing of the entire community in and around the Outer Banks of North Carolina is greatly reliant on tourism and outdoor recreation such as sportfishing.

ASA supports the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act of 2014 and most of the subsequent actions the NPS has taken to modify its ORV management plan.

Issue Background

To develop an ORV plan in a collaborative fashion, the NPS formed the CHNSRA Negotiated Rulemaking (RegNeg) Committee consisting of environmental groups, anglers, business-owners and tourism organizations, among others.

In June 2007, the NPS implemented an interim strategy to provide adequate protection for shorebirds until more formal regulations were completed. However, in February 2008, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society filed an injunction seeking to prohibit all ORV access, except for essential vehicles, on the CHNSRA. They argued that the interim strategy did not provide adequate protection for shorebirds. The federal government declined to defend the interim strategy and entered into settlement negotiations with those organizations.

In April 2008, a federal judge outlined a settlement agreement to remain in effect until the RegNeg Committee completed its work and the NPS could issue a final ORV management plan. The settlement agreement put in place protections for shorebirds that exceeded those outlined in the interim strategy and resulted in extensive restrictions on ORV access to key surf fishing spots.

Both Defenders and Audubon held seats on the RegNeg Committee, a situation that many viewed as a conflict of interest. RegNeg Committee members and other stakeholders brought this concern to the attention of Interior Department staff. Although several groups requested Defenders and Audubon be removed from the RegNeg Committee on the basis that they did not follow ground rules to negotiate “in good faith,” this request was denied by the Interior Department in June 2008.

The RegNeg Committee met approximately 12 times from January 2008 to February 2009. However, it was never able to come to consensus on an ORV management plan.

In March 2010, the NPS released its draft ORV management plan evaluating the potential impacts of several alternative management options for the CHNSRA. The NPS’s preferred alternative was the most restrictive management option to date, with excessive access restrictions that seemed to negate the valid interests and perspectives of the sportfishing community and other stakeholders who collaborated with the NPS using science-based information through the RegNeg Committee process.

The preferred alternative included excessively large areas closed off as buffers for endangered species, unnecessary year-round and floating closures and a lack of access corridors around or through closed areas. In addition, the draft ORV management plan was missing critical socio-economic information that should have been taken into consideration in the planning process. To view ASA’s comments on the draft plan, click here.

In December 2010, the park released a final ORV management plan adopting the NPS’ preferred alternative. To read ASA’s comments on the final ORV management plan, click here.

Starting in 2012, Congress made several attempts to pass legislation to overturn the NPS’ final ORV management plan and reinstate the interim strategy. In June 2012, the Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives as part of a package of public lands bills, but failed to pass the Senate before that session of Congress ended.

In early 2013, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced bills (S. 486H.R. 819) that would authorize pedestrian and motorized vehicular access in the CHNSRA. Both bills advanced through the process but failed to pass before that session of Congress ended.  With six Republican co-sponsors, H. R. 819 was reported to committee on May 15, 2013. On June 18, 2013, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously advanced an amended version of S. 486 that would require a review of the ORV management plan and require modifications to allow for better public access.

In December 2014, President Obama signed into law the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act. The law required the Secretary of the Interior to review and modify the final ORV management plan to better accommodate public access, including minimizing the size and duration of closures based on peer-reviewed science; allowing access corridors around closed areas; accommodating night-time driving; and constructing new vehicle access sites.

As part of the first phase of implementing the law, the NPS conducted an environmental assessment on wildlife buffer zones and determined that some zones could be reduced in size as well as duration. The park also began prioritizing construction projects for improving public access points and corridors around closed areas.

A separate environmental assessment explored changes to the seashore’s ORV management plan as it relates to the morning opening of beaches, extending the length of seasonal ORV routes in the fall and/or spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas. Working with partners at the Outer Banks Preservation Association, ASA provided comments supporting needed improvements to better accommodate public access. While some of the proposed changes were positive, ASA and local groups believed the new considerations regarding restricted access still went further than necessary.

The final ORV management plan modifications were finalized and approved in December .