Wildlife Advocates Score a Win at Cape Hatteras

A recent court ruling upholds law protecting wildlife habitat from off-road vehicles. 

There's been a victory for birds—and, in fact, all wildlife—at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

A law limiting off-road vehicle (ORV) access to the beach will remain in place, thanks to a June ruling by the Eastern District Court of North Carolina. The law is part of an effort to protect the vulnerable wildlife that make their home on the coast, though it had been challenged by a group of ORV enthusiasts hoping to get back on the beach.

The law has been hotly contested since its inception more than two years ago. Plans to better protect the shore began when the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife in order to preserve the local wildlife. The suit targeted ORVs on beaches, because these vehicles often crush eggs, confuse turtle hatchlings, and drive wildlife from the shore. In February 2012, the National Park Service implemented a new plan, which limited ORV access at certain locations and times, much to the chagrin of the off-roading community, which has vocally opposed the regulations.

The off-roaders quickly mobilized, creating the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, and within the month filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. The court process lasted two years, culminating in the resolution to deny the lawsuit this June.

Some opponents of the law have argued that it could suppress tourism at the beach, but Walker Golder, deputy director of Audubon North Carolina, says the economy is looking good. "There's been economic benefit from having a balanced plan in place," he says, explaining that visitation to the seashore has actually been up since the plan was enacted. Audubon North Carolina has previously estimated that only 2 percent of seashore visitors drive ORVs

Still, Golder believes the conversation will be ongoing. "This is an important step, but the off-road vehicle advocates have stated clearly that they will continue to fight it," he says.

For now, the ruling is at least a temporary victory for Cape Hatteras, which is an essential habitat for nesting birds, turtles, and other wildlife.

"The National Parks and Seashores in the U.S. are some of the finest in the world, and they've been set aside to protect some of the most significant places in the country," Golder says. "They are, if you will, symbols of what this country is all about, and they need to be protected for everything they offer to everyone."