STAR Tannery, Virginia - Though I grew up 10 minutes from the eastern coastline of the U.S., I probably spent less time there than most people who lived hours away. But for the first 24 years of my life, I was dependent on the economy generated by our proximity to the shore.
With all due respect to my native state, New Jersey beaches are either too crowded and noisy (God forbid the sound of the ocean drown out someone's boom box) or extravagantly expensive. There are no free beaches in Jersey. As a child, I couldn't imagine what a beach looked like without the requisite parking lot and boardwalk with a sort of "toll booth" where you paid your money to access the beach.
Finally my family moved minutes away from New Jersey's Island Beach State Park, where for a flat per-carload fee you could spend the entire day. It was the closest thing to a vacation I ever saw until my honeymoon. Ever wonder how many Italians can fit in a Chevy Bel Air? Our record was nine; it could have been 10, but we had to put the spaghetti pot and Coleman stove on the floor in the back.
Oh - and you're not allowed to drive a second car to the park entrance, park it and have your parents strap you and your brother to the roof of their station wagon to avoid the second car fee. Please don't ask me how I know this.
These days we occasionally find the cash to spend a week at the beach - in our case, somewhere on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where there are a wide variety of beachside experiences. You can stay in a beachfront mansion in Corolla or a tiny, vintage cottage on remote Ocracoke Island. It is pricey, though, no matter where you decide to stay and those luxurious condos are a far cry from the housing on the mainland.
But, just as my family could count on our day trips to Island Beach State Park to provide a little respite, locals in North Carolina could at least indulge the same way at parts of Hatteras Island and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. At least, that's the way it used to be.
The buzzword at Outer Banks these days is "limited beach access." On one side are the environmentalists; on the other are fishermen, local residents and businesspeople whose livelihood depends on unlimited beach access for tourists.
Environmentalist claim the fishermen's use of ATVs to access their prime fishing areas threaten the habitat of the piping plover, a tiny shore bird, since the vehicles kill vegetation. The fishermen, business owners and residents claim the restriction is actually the cause of the threatened habitat since the plovers will not nest in dense vegetation. Environmentalists claim the bird is shy and delicate and will fail to thrive with beachgoers around it; their own research, though, shows the opposite.
Right now, though, in a tanking economy, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have limited beach access, and are facing total closure - all through a series of complicated decisions based on supposition and bureaucratic doubletalk; certainly not on the findings of the National Park Service whose evaluations - even those quoted by environmentalists - report no negative impact by ATVs - other than the 20 plovers killed nationwide by the federal ATVs in their study.
At least the by-the-week renters can use the beaches contiguous to their rental units, since the plovers don't seem to desire those beaches. All I can think of are the day trippers - those locals who drive to the beach for a day. While ATVs were the specifically cited problem, many of the access points have been barred to pedestrians as well.
According to the consent decree limiting beach access, any signs of "vandalism" results in the limited area being extended by incrementally larger spaces with each incident. So far, five vandalisms have occurred involving no threat to plovers and no damage to the natural beach environment. It doesn't take an ornithology scientist to figure out a good way for an environmentalist to get the access limitations expanded is to wreak a little minor havoc at the entry points. All for The Cause, don't cha know.
Right now the National Park Service's own evaluation seems to preclude the need for the restrictions the agency has succeeded in placing on beach access. Still, more limitations loom in the future.
Indulging such sloppy science and environmental hysteria doesn't bode well for public access to other national parks. Nor does it bode well for those of us who rely on the park system we support with our patronage and tax money.
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