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National Park Service faces suit for failing to manage beach driving on Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Visitor experience and natural resources at risk without adequate plan

(10/18/2007) - RALEIGH, N.C. – After years of failure to manage increasingly out of control driving on the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service now faces legal action. The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, filed suit today in U.S. District Court against the Park Service for its failure to adopt regulations to manage beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in ways that safeguard visitors and natural resources. In addition, the groups filed a notice of intent to sue over the Park Service’s failure to adequately protect federally endangered species.

“No one wants deny the rights of fishermen and families to enjoy beaches along the National Seashore, but our beaches are turning into highways. In the meantime, the Park Service has stood idly by, shirking its responsibility to institute simple rules and instead watching natural resources be destroyed and a once-responsible tradition spin out of control,” said SELC attorney Derb Carter.

Vehicles on Cape Hatteras National SeashoreThe ability to drive on the beaches of Cape Hatteras is a long-standing tradition. In recent years, however, hundreds of cars per day can jam even the smallest sections of beach, putting people and wildlife at risk. Some estimates put over 2,000 cars per day on the beaches of the Seashore during peak season. A recent ruling by a federal judge called into question the legality of any beach driving while the Park Service fails to have in place adequate plans that have been mandated for more than three decades.

“With a reasonable plan in place, we can ensure that beach users and wildlife can coexist and that the natural resources of Cape Hatteras will be preserved for the next generation,” commented Defenders of Wildlife staff attorney, Jason Rylander. “If we don’t take action now, nesting shorebirds and sea turtles could be at risk of disappearing from the Seashore entirely, as their habitat becomes more and more unsuitable. Without an adequate vehicle management plan, the beach could lose its appeal to families, fishermen, birdwatchers and others who appreciate the wildlife of the Seashore.”

The National Park Service is charged with developing and implementing a plan to manage beach driving to protect and preserve the region’s natural resources. After dragging its feet for years, the Park Service is currently operating under an interim management plan that fails to adopt measures recommended by the U.S. government’s own scientist and that doesn’t adequately protect the area’s wildlife and visitors. In fact, the Superintendent of the Seashore recently admitted in a letter to the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh that the Park Service “has not met the long standing requirements” to manage vehicle use at the Seashore.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to nesting shorebirds, such as the threatened piping plover, as well as threatened loggerhead turtles, and endangered leatherback turtles. Since 1999, several tern species have been all but eliminated at the seashore, along with black skimmers. Other sensitive species of birds have seen their numbers decline by almost one half. Furthermore, the number of nesting attempts by threatened sea turtles exceed the number of nests.  Under the Park Service’s interim management plan, this year is expected to be another extremely poor one for nesting birds and turtles.

“We are merely asking the Park Service to protect the treasures that all of us in the public have entrusted to them,” said Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina. “Sadly, if the current approach at the Seashore continues, the very natural and recreational resources millions of visitors come to enjoy could be lost.  Beach driving and natural resource protection are compatible, but only if a reasonable and science-based plan is in place and enforced.”

The suit filed today will challenge the Park Service’s failure to adopt regulations to manage beach driving, its failure to ensure preservation of natural resources and violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Park Service has failed to develop a beach driving management plan for years despite the legal requirement to do so. In addition to federal regulation requiring such protection, in 1973, President Nixon ordered the National Park Service to regulate beach driving to protect natural resources. Most recently, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle issued an order concluding driving on the Seashore illegal as the Park Service has failed to adopt beach driving regulations.


Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.



Jessica Brand, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0239
Melinda Pierson, Southern Environmental Law Center, (919) 967-1450
Chris Canfield, Audubon Society, (919) 929-3899

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