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Share the Beach: No-Driving Rule Benefits NC Wildlife

PHOTO: Cars are still allowed on 19 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but vehicles are restricted on another 11 miles of beach to preserve habitat for nesting birds and sea turtles. Photo courtesy National Park Service.
PHOTO: Cars are still allowed on 19 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but vehicles are restricted on another 11 miles of beach to preserve habitat for nesting birds and sea turtles. Photo courtesy National Park Service.
May 21, 2014

AVON, N.C. - This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of tourists will flock to Cape Hatteras National Seashore in hopes of taking in the fresh air and frolicking in the saltwater. Their temporary reprieve is a permanent home for sea turtles and other wildlife now reaping the rewards of greater protection.

In 2012, the National Park Service began enforcing a rule to limit beach driving during sea turtle and shorebird nesting season. Jason Rylander, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said the rule is based in science.

"Plenty of research backs up the fact that when you can limit the amount of disturbance in those areas at the critical times of the years, you will see a correlation to nesting success," he said.

Only 11 miles of the 67-mile national seashore are closed as a result of enforcing the rule. Another 19 miles of beach remain open for driving. Other sections are closed for human safety concerns. Since summer 2012, there have been record sea-turtle nest counts.

Critics of closing the beaches to vehicles warned that it would hurt the local economy by discouraging tourists, but Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that's proved not to be the case.

"The current regulation is balancing those uses," she said, "so that the people that choose to use off-road vehicles have places to do that, and the families and wildlife that prefer a vehicle-free beach can find those places, too."

Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups want the Park Service to continue to enforce the rule, said Rylander, to minimize damage to the beach and the wildlife.

"Birds simply do not set up nests when there's constant disturbance of cars and trucks, running back and forth in front of the areas where they would like to be," he said. "The ruts themselves also pose obstacles, both for chicks and for sea turtle hatchlings."

The seasonal closures to protect wildlife are based on a recovery plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC