Coalition Comments on Proposed Changes to Cape Hatteras ORV Rule

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March 6, 2016

David Hallac, Superintendent
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, NC  27954

Subject:  Environmental Assessment for Consideration of Changes to Final Rule for Off-Road Vehicle Management

Dear Superintendent Hallac:

I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,100 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). Our membership is composed entirely of retired, former, or current salaried employees of the National Park Service (NPS). As a group, we collectively represent more than 30,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. Formerly known as the Coalition of National Park Service (NPS) Retirees, we participated in the off-road vehicle (ORV) negotiated rulemaking advisory committee at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore) from 2007 to 2009 and have continued to be actively involved in the issue through the public comment process.

The purpose of this letter is to submit comments on the Environmental Assessment for Consideration of Changes to Final Rule for Off-Road Vehicle Management (EA). In 2010, NPS finalized the Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (ORV plan/FEIS) to guide the management and use of ORVs at the Seashore (NPS 2010a). As part of the selected alternative, certain elements of the plan were implemented through a special rulemaking process. The related Final Rule for ORV management (final rule) was published in the Federal Register on January 23, 2012.  NPS is now considering changes to the ORV plan/FEIS and final rule as required by Section 3057(c) of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2015 (the Act), which states:

The Secretary shall undertake a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements (emphasis added) at the National Seashore the following changes to the Final Rule:

(1) Opening beaches at the National Seashore that are closed to night driving restrictions, by opening beach segments each morning on a rolling basis as daily management reviews are completed.

(2) Extending seasonal off-road vehicle routes for additional periods in the Fall and Spring if off-road vehicle use would not create resource management problems at the National Seashore.

(3) Modifying the size and location of vehicle free areas.

While we understand NPS is required to consider revisions to the Seashore’s ORV plan/FEIS and final rule we have a number of comments and concerns regarding the proposed action.

Comments and Concerns

  1. The Act requires NPS to comply with other management requirements: The Act’s reference to “consistent with management requirements” at the Seashore inherently directs NPS to comply with the “conservation mandate” of the NPS Organic Act, which is summarized in NPS Management Policies 2006 Section 1.4.3:

Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant (emphasis added). This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act.

The Seashore’s management requirements also include adherence to the “primitive wilderness” and resource “preservation” mandates that are spelled out in the Seashore’s enabling legislation, as referenced on pp. 2-3 of the EA:

Except for certain portions of the area, deemed to be especially adaptable for recreational uses, particularly swimming, boating, sailing, fishing, and other recreational activities of similar nature, which shall be developed for such uses as needed, the said area shall be permanently reserved as a primitive wilderness (emphasis added) and no development of the project or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna (emphasis added) or the physiographic conditions now prevailing in this area.

NPS has done little over the years to protect the “primitive wilderness” character that prevailed at the time the Seashore was authorized. Because of the manmade dunes built from the late 1930’s until the 1970’s, most Cape Hatteras beaches today are unnaturally narrow and often heavily eroded, nothing like the broad natural barrier island beaches that existed when the Seashore was authorized. The areas least impacted by the manmade dunes are the inlet spits and the Cape Point area, which today provide the Seashore’s most remote and undeveloped “natural” beach locations. As a result, these areas, if properly managed, are highly valued as vestiges of what Cape Hatteras once was – a natural barrier island system shaped largely by the forces of nature. Regrettably, due to decades of unregulated ORV use, these spits and Cape Point were often the most crowded and heavily impacted places at the Seashore prior to implementation of the new ORV Management Plan in 2012.

A noteworthy change in management philosophy began to occur at the Seashore in 2010 when NPS issued the Final ORV Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (plan/FEIS), followed in 2012 by the final rule to implement the plan/FEIS. For the first time NPS elevated the conservation of “park resources and values” over “ORV user convenience. Finally, due consideration was given to the value of pristine visitor experience opportunities offered by the Seashore’s remote, natural beach locations. In particular, the Vehicle Free Area (VFA) west of Cape Point created by the ORV plan/FEIS, more than any other location at the Seashore, provides the largest (est. 2.8 miles long), most remote, and arguably the highest value opportunity for visitors to experience the type of “wild,” natural barrier island beach that defined the Outer Banks when the Seashore was authorized in 1937. As NPS complies with requirements of the Act to consider changes to the final rule, we urge that the respective mandates of the NPS Organic Act and the Seashore’s enabling legislation continue to serve as the fundamental guidance regarding “management requirements” at the Seashore; and when there is a conflict between conserving park resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation must be predominant.

  1. The EA Tiers Off the ORV Plan/FEIS: As described in the NPS National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidance (NPS NEPA Handbook 2015, pp. 25-26):

A NEPA document that is tiered to a previous, broader NEPA document must include a finding that environmental conditions and impacts as described in the earlier NEPA document are still valid; or if not, address any exceptions (46.140). If conditions or impacts have changed, the tiered document must explain this and provide any updated information or analysis (46.140(b))… Tiering is essentially a specific form of incorporation by reference. When tiering a new NEPA document to an existing one, you must state that you are tiering to another NEPA document (emphasis added), give a brief description of the earlier document, and state where the earlier document is available. Following the procedures for incorporation by reference, you must also cite and summarize the relevant portions of the broader document to which the new NEPA document is tiered (1502.20; 1502.21).

The EA (p. 2) states, “[b]ackground information relevant to the proposed action is provided at length in the ORV FEIS (NPS 2010a). That information is not repeated in this EA…” Though not explicitly stated, we assume this implies that the EA is tiered off the ORV plan/FEIS, which is appropriate. However, on several occasions the EA overlooks key information and rationale contained in the ORV plan/FEIS, and the proposed actions undermine the objectives of a number of the ORV management decisions made during that process. In this regard, we have a number of concerns that are described below.

  1. Chapter 2 – No Action Alternative: The No Action clearly offers the most benefits to park resources and values, to the majority of beach visitors (i.e., pedestrians), and to park management and operations. As a result, the Coalition strongly supports the No Action Alternative. However, we recognize that NPS must respond to the Act by describing and considering changes to the final rule.
  2. Chapter 2 – Action Alternatives: As described in the EA, each of the three action alternatives presents a variety of measures which would increase ORV use at the Seashore by increasing ORV route locations and increasing periods of time that some areas would be open to ORVs. The action alternatives, as described, would provide virtually no benefits to the preservation of park resources and values, to the majority of park beach visitors (i.e., pedestrians), or to park management and operations. Rather, if implemented, they would diminish the current levels of resource protection and the quality of visitor, particularly pedestrian, experience opportunities. This one-sided focus sends the wrong message to park visitors and stakeholders alike. We believe that NPS has been short-sighted in not presenting offsetting measures, proportional to the identified increases in ORV access. Despite these criticisms, we commend NPS for showing reasonable restraint in the range of action alternatives and the specific alternative elements considered, and thereby limiting the extent of harm that will result should some or all of these actions be implemented. We believe that the range of alternatives considered adequately satisfies the requirements of the Act and that the NPS decisions regarding “Alternatives Considered but Dismissed from Detailed Analysis” (EA pp. 52-54) are entirely appropriate.
  3. Chapter 2 – NPS Preferred Alternative: NPS has identified alternative 2 as its preferred alternative (EA p. 54). We offer the following comments on each section of alternative 2.
  1. Morning Beach Openings: The primary reason for establishing a consistent morning opening time for ORV access during the turtle nesting season is to ensure that NPS staff has adequate time to safely and reliably survey the beach for new turtle nests each morning before any recreational ORV’s enter the beach and possibly damage or obscure new, unmarked nests. Our primary concerns about the proposed changes in opening time(s) and date(s) are two-fold.

First, as explained in the ORV plan/FEIS (pp. C-58 and C-59), during the turtle nesting season “[r]estricting night driving between the hours of 9:00 pm and 7:00 am provides an easily understood, enforceable restriction. Opening the beach to ORV use prior to 7:00 am would not allow staff ample daylight hours to patrol the entire Seashore for turtle nests prior to ORV use. Such a decision would force them to start before daylight, which may cause them to miss turtle nests or late nesting turtles(emphasis added). Important as well, the current 7 a.m. opening time is a policy that is easily understood by visitors. For this reason, visitor compliance with the existing opening time is reportedly very good. The proposal (which would establish different openings times at different locations and changing times on different dates) is far more complicated and potentially confusing to visitors than the current regulation. This increases the likelihood that ORV users could “jump the gun” and drive onto the beach, whether intentionally or unintentionally, before the designated opening time. Such behavior would increase the chances of “take.” As stated in Section 3(18) of the Endangered Species Act: “The term ‘take’ means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” “Take” in the context of Seashore beaches could include missed sea turtle nests or human-caused disturbance of, or harm to, nests, nesting turtles, or hatchlings. While visitor compliance with the morning opening time has reportedly been very good since the implementation of the ORV plan/FEIS and final rule, the longer history at the Seashore has been of adverse impacts caused by night-driving and related violations of night-driving closures, sometimes with dramatic adverse effects on sea turtles (e.g., ORV plan/FEIS, pp. 237-238). The history of failed compliance is well documented in past annual law enforcement reports and resource management reports, which were carefully considered during the preparation of the ORV plan/FEIS. If NPS decides to establish variable times, places, and dates for ORV travel on beaches, we urge substantial actions to provide improved signing regarding night driving restrictions, improved ORV user education (which NPS indicates it plans to do as mitigation), and sufficient and consistent early morning NPS law enforcement presence to ensure compliance and protect resources.

Second, the proposed earlier morning opening of “designated priority routes” at differing times on differing dates may seem to be a manageable workload, but successful implementation can be achieved only if NPS staff is able to consistently, reliably, and safely survey all areas for turtle nests each and every day before the new beach opening time(s). The EA suggests that staff can accomplish this, but provides no information (such as an analysis of staffing needs) to support this; so we cannot comment on the whether the park can realistically and reliably accomplish the earlier patrols or not. Presumably, compliance can be assured by increased staffing; however, recruitment and retention of seasonal staffing in bio-tech positions has been a challenge at the Seashore for many years. Because of the lack of staffing analysis in the EA and the uncertainty of staffing in general, we have doubts about the capacity of NPS to consistently complete the morning surveys before the proposed beach opening times. We therefore recommend that NPS clearly state in its forthcoming decision document that it retains the management authority to revert to the standard 7:00 a.m. morning opening time, if increased capacity to perform beach patrols is not available, to ensure the protection of park resources and the safety of NPS staff.

  1. Seasonal Off-Road Vehicle Routes: The proposed opening of the seasonal ORV routes in front of the villages and Ocracoke campground two weeks earlier/later at either end of the season (i.e., open October 15 – April 15), only benefits ORV users and is unsupported by any other rationale. According to the ORV plan/FEIS (p. 558), the November 1 to March 31 dates for seasonal ORV routes were based on data that indicated when park visitation and rental occupancy are the lowest. In addition, there are many references in the ORV plan/FEIS confirming the NPS goal of providing a relative balance in the amount of ORV access and vehicle free areas (VFA’s) in order to achieve the plan/FEIS’s stated objectives of providing diverse visitor experience opportunities, as well as protection of breeding and migrating and wintering wildlife. We are not aware of any significant changes in visitation or occupancy trends since the completion of the ORV management plan that would support the changes proposed in the EA. If anything, recent data indicates a continuing trend of gradually increasing shoulder season and off-season visitation and occupancy, particularly during winter vacation periods, which argues against expanding the period of ORV use on village beaches. As a result, the proposed changes will adversely affect increasing numbers of visitors staying in the villages and campgrounds. The proposed expansion of ORV access dates could also be problematic during years in which spring vacation week (typically Easter week in VA and NC) occurs on or before April 15, when family vacationers, typically beach pedestrians, and ORV users would be competing for the same popular beach locations; and similarly during years when Columbus weekend occurs on or after October 15. Changing the dates, as proposed, to allow earlier and later ORV use of these areas is another one-sided proposal, beneficial only to ORV users. For these reasons, the Coalition opposes any increases in seasonal ORV route periods that would result in decreased periods for seasonal VFA’s, unless such changes are proportionally offset by increased VFA periods or improved pedestrian experience opportunities at other suitable locations.
  1. Access Improvements: Many of the “access improvements” proposed by NPS would quite obviously result in increased ORV access and reductions in VFA’s, benefitting only the relative minority of all park visitors, ORV users. The purpose and benefits of VFA’s are well described throughout the ORV plan/FEIS. For example (p. 81), the NPS Preferred Alternative (Alternative F) was “designed to provide visitors to the Seashore with a wide variety of access opportunities for both ORV and pedestrian users, including access to the spits and points. Areas of high resource sensitivity and high visitor use would generally be designated as vehicle-free areas year-round or as seasonal ORV routes, with restrictions based on season, etc. Vehicle-free areas throughout the Seashore would provide for relatively less disturbed foraging, resting, and roosting habitat for migrating and wintering birds.” Comments about specific proposed access improvements, listed north to south, are as follows;

1)  Ramp 2 – Coquina Beach is one of the most heavily used pedestrian beaches at the Seashore and the ORV route south of Coquina Beach, which is currently accessed by Ramp 4 (and formerly accessed also by Ramp 2), is one of the most congested ORV routes. The reason for closing Ramp 2 and extending the VFA 1/2 mile south of Coquina Beach in the ORV plan/FEIS was to provide a sufficient buffer, both for safety and visitor experience reasons, between the two uses. Designated Ramp 2.5, if constructed, would provide ORV access at the northern end of the designated route, which is desirable, while maintaining the objective of separation of the uses. In the EA, NPS proposes to reopen Ramp 2, which would re-establish heavy ORV use next to a busy pedestrian beach. Granted, NPS proposes to reconfigure Ramp 2, so that it would come out 200 ft. south of the previous location. However, such reconfiguration only partially addresses our safety concerns, and does not address our visitor experience concerns. As proposed, reopening Ramp 2 to ORV use could significantly increase the number of vehicles entering and leaving the Coquina Beach parking lot during the busy season and therefore increase the traffic congestion and related safety hazards at the entrance to the parking area on NC 12. Based on past use of Ramp 2 (i.e., before it was closed), reopening the ramp will result in a significant number of ORVs accessing and parking on the beach right next to Coquina Beach, creating the appearance and effect of a massive beach parking lot. The park should have aerial photographs of such congestion in the past, or see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87K6-tmN0ks. Given the lack of traffic count data and analysis provided in the EA, it is not possible to quantify our concern; however, we believe that NPS should evaluate the potential for significant traffic congestion problems, as well as potential visitor experience impacts. This should include reviewing any past traffic count data that may be available for NC 12, the Coquina Beach parking lot, and Ramp 2. While we see some relative benefits of NPS not building a new Ramp 2.5 (no construction impacts, etc.), if NPS proceeds with this proposal we urge NPS to designate Ramp 2 only as part of a seasonal ORV route (consistent with whatever dates NPS decides to use for seasonal ORV routes), so that it is not open for ORV use during the busy season when the conflicts with Coquina Beach would be the greatest.

2) Ramp 45 – NPS proposes to reopen Ramp 45 and re-designate the old ORV route from Ramp 45 to the beach as a “park road” so that no ORV permit would be needed to use it, then build a new parking lot with a “pervious” surface (i.e., shell, etc.) on the upper beach. While creative, this approach would be inconsistent with NPS management policies (e.g., Sections 9.11.5 and 9.4.2) and establish a bad precedent at Cape Hatteras. In our opinion, it would be an alarming precedent if NPS were to redesignate this particular (former but never officially designated) ORV route as a “road” in order to reopen it to vehicle use without an ORV permit, a tactic that could presumably be used in the future for similar redesignations of other past or present ORV routes. Furthermore, of all the VFA’s identified in the ORV plan/FEIS, particularly those involving the spits and points (the only “natural beach” areas at the Seashore), the Cape Point VFA is the one that best restored an opportunity for visitors to experience some of the “primitive wilderness” that the enabling legislation explicitly directed NPS to protect. As a result, we strongly object to NPS building a parking area on the upper beach in the middle of the Cape Point VFA, which in many ways would spoil an important visitor experience opportunity and would also likely increase human disturbance of migrating and nonbreeding shorebirds that the VFA was also designed to protect.

There are practical concerns, too; the proposed “road” and parking area on the upper beach would likely be difficult to maintain for street vehicle access due to recurring flooding and over-wash events creating, in essence, another facility maintenance challenge. And, more importantly, the proposed parking area is manifestly unnecessary for pedestrian access to the VFA. As measured on the CAHA Google Earth Beach Access Map, the distance from the existing parking lot at the rear of Cape Point Campground out to the proposed parking lot on the upper beach is only 0.3 to 0.4 of a mile – a 10 minute walk for most visitors. If NPS believes the Cape Point VFA is “underutilized” by pedestrians, as is often alleged by ORV supporters, then we recommend that NPS better inform and support pedestrian use of the existing VFA. This could include improving the parking area at the rear of the campground as needed to make it more resilient to flooding; designating and signing the parking area as a trailhead; showing the trailhead and the “trail” on park maps; making visitors aware of the opportunity by listing the trail as a “recommended hike” in the park newspaper and on the park website; and perhaps offering regularly scheduled Interpretive walks of the trail to the beach to talk about the Seashore’s purpose and significance and its natural and cultural history. There is no other VFA at the Seashore that offers such an experience.

3) Ramp 59 – The NPS preferred alternative (Alternative F) in the ORV plan/FEIS identified the north end of Ocracoke as a year-round VFA and proposed to create a new Ramp 59.5 to provide for ORV access to the designated ORV route south of the VFA. The underlying reason for building the new ramp was to relocate the ORV access point to the south of the existing parking lot along NC 12 (which is several hundred yards south of the current ramp), so that pedestrians accessing the VFA from the parking lot would not have to walk a quarter mile or more on the beach through a heavily used ORV route in order to reach the VFA. This small measure was intended to enhance the visitor experience from the pedestrian’s point of view. Because such access improvements would require additional planning and compliance, the final rule allowed for the continued short-term use of the existing Ramp 59 by ORVs until such time that the new Ramp 59.5 could be planned and constructed. In the current EA, NPS proposes to redesignate and extend the year-round ORV route so that Ramp 59 becomes the designated long-term ORV access point and constructing a new Ramp 59.5 would no longer necessary. While this seems like a practical, common sense approach, it fails to address the fundamental reason, described above, for relocating the ramp. This strikes us as another example of NPS being more concerned about enhancing ORV access than the quality of visitor experience for pedestrians. If NPS proceeds with redesignating Ramp 59 as part of a year-round ORV route, then we urge NPS to relocate the parking area to a suitable location north of Ramp 59.

4) Soundside access on Ocracoke – Improving soundside access opportunities on Ocracoke Island was clearly one of the intentions of the ORV plan/FEIS. The EA’s proposals in this regard appear reasonable and appropriate to us.

  1. ORV Permit Lengths: As stated in our scoping comments, the proposal to change the length of permit periods is outside the scope of review required in the Act. That said, we understand that the proposed change(s) are primarily administrative in nature, may be perceived as beneficial to some visitors, and would have little direct impact on park resources or operations. We have no specific objection to changing the calendar-year annual permit to a one-year-from-the-date-of-purchase annual permit; or the 7-day short-term permit to a 10-day short-term permit. Though not part of the NPS preferred alternative, we oppose changing the short-term permit period to anything less than 7 days (as proposed in alternative 3), as we believe such minimal permit lengths invite a resumption of the kinds of inappropriate ORV behavior that was common prior to implementation of the current ORV permit program (e.g., see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkcymsicOA8). Lastly, we note that the current calendar-year and 7-day permit lengths are specifically designated in the special regulation at 36 CFR § 7.58(c)(2)(iv). As a result, the special regulation must be changed before the proposed changes in permit lengths can be implemented. 
  1. Chapter 2 – Mitigation Measures for Proposed Action: CEQ regulations require inclusion of appropriate mitigation measures in alternatives (1502.14(f)). In most cases, mitigation measures should be developed and incorporated as integral elements of the alternatives. Often, identified mitigation consists of best management practices designed to minimize impacts that are included as elements common to all alternatives. Because the proposed action would benefit only ORV users, and likely result in harm to park resources and values, pedestrians, and park management and operations, we recommend that the NPS revise the preferred alternative to include additional mitigation actions. Such measures should contribute to the protection of park resources and values and/or improve pedestrian experience opportunities in ways that are proportional to the proposed increases in ORV access. Adding such measures would demonstrate a clear ongoing NPS commitment to fulfilling all the objectives of the ORV plan/FEIS, not just the objective related to ORV access.
  1. Chapter 2 – Lack of An Environmentally Preferable Alternative: NPS has identified alternative 2 as its preferred alternative (EA p. 54). Though CEQ regulations and NPS NEPA guidance do not strictly require it (in an EA), our experience has been that it is common practice for NPS to also identify an “environmentally preferable alternative” in many EA’s. As described in the NPS NEPA Handbook (p. 57):

The environmentally preferable alternative is the alternative developed and analyzed during the NEPA process “that causes the least damage to the biological and physical environment and best protects, preserves, and enhances historical, cultural, and natural resources” (46.30). An environmentally preferable alternative must be identified in a ROD and may (emphasis added) be identified in EAs, FONSIs, and draft and final EISs (1505.2(b); 46.450).”

Unlike other recent EA’s related to ORV management at the Seashore, NPS has not identified an environmentally preferable alternative in this one. For example, the 2013 “Proposal to Facilitate Additional Public Beach Access EA” identified “No Action” as the environmentally preferable alternative (p. 66). The 2015 “Review and Adjustment of Wildlife Protection Buffers EA” also identified “No Action” as the environmentally preferable alternative (p. 37). After reviewing the impact analyses in Chapter 4, it is clear that “No Action” would also be the environmentally preferable alternative in the current EA. In the interest of public disclosure and to fully and accurately characterize the prevailing adverse effects within all the action alternatives, we encourage NPS to identify the environmentally preferable alternative in its forthcoming decision document.

  1. Chapter 4 – Environmental Consequences: NPS, using a broad brush approach, has concluded that many of the adverse impacts of the proposed action would be “long term, negligible to minor, and adverse.” However, it is evident from all the analyses that the primary and perhaps only beneficiary of the proposed action will be ORV users – not park resources; not the majority of park visitors who access the beach on foot; not visitors seeking to experience a remote, natural beach; and not Seashore management and operations. All action alternatives call for a variety of increases in ORV access, which will undoubtedly increase the level of harmful impacts from ORV use. Given the similar levels of adverse effects to wildlife described in the recent Modifications to Wildlife Protection Buffers EA, we suspect that the cumulative effects of the those changes combined with the proposed changes to the final rule would have a synergistic effect and are therefore underestimated in the current EA. We fully understand that characterizing cumulative effects is a qualitative process, part reason and part alchemy; however, we believe that by implementing several new plans in response to the Act, each increasing the long-term adverse impacts of ORV use at the Seashore, the combination will likely cause additive or even compounding cumulative adverse effects. We have no specific recommendation for how NPS should address this in its analysis, other than this concern further reinforces the need for NPS to include reasonable and effective mitigation and other measures that would offset the adverse effects and enhance wildlife protection and pedestrian experience opportunities proportional to the improvements in ORV access.
  1. Other – Many of the Proposed Changes Require Rulemaking to Implement: The NPS general regulation at 36 CFR § 4.10(b) requires that “Routes and areas designated for off-road motor vehicle use shall be promulgated as special regulations.” In practical terms, this means that ORV route locations and dates for seasonal routes at a park must be codified in special regulations, not in the Superintendent’s Compendium. As a result, many of the proposed changes in the EA require rulemaking to revise 36 CFR § 7.58 (c) before implementation can occur. These include: redesignation of ORV route locations; changing portions of current VFA’s into ORV routes; changing dates for seasonal ORV routes; changing times for morning beach openings for ORVs; and changing the current calendar-year and 7-day ORV permit provisions. We encourage NPS to clearly communicate in its forthcoming NEPA decision document the need for rulemaking to be completed before implementation can occur, as it is not made clear in the EA. It would also be appropriate to amend the “Need for Action” section in Chapter 1 of the EA to include “Action is needed to serve as a basis for proposed rulemaking, which is necessary to implement most of the proposed changes.”
  1. Other – Adequacy of NPS Sign Maintenance and Law Enforcement Presence: Changes in management plans, particularly addressing controversial issues, invariably result in the need to assess the adequacy of NPS staffing needed to implement those changes. We have discussed concerns above about the adequacy of resources management staffing for morning turtle nest surveys; we are also currently about the adequacy of law enforcement staffing. The current level of law enforcement (LE) staffing at CAHA was developed specifically for implementing the ORV plan/FEIS and was based in large part on the management controls inherent in the plan/FEIS. We understand that due to attrition and budget constraints the park may not currently be staffed to the level described in the plan/FEIS. In addition, the changes proposed in the EA will expand the locations and times that beaches would be open to ORV use without apparently providing for any additional LE staffing. Presumably, LE staff will be expected to “work harder” and “do more with less” in order to keep pace with the expanded locations, expanded seasons, and expanded morning hours of ORV access. Yet, the EA (pp. 143-144) concludes the impact of the preferred alternative on NPS operations “would contribute a small incremental impact to overall cumulative impacts as a result of the small additional area that must be managed for ORV use and increased natural resource and maintenance staff workloads.” This conclusion is understated at best. We are very concerned about the capacity of NPS to provide consistent and sustained law enforcement patrol presence in resource sensitive areas and at the interfaces between ORV areas and VFA’s, particularly during the proposed increase(s) in early morning access hours. It is not realistic to expect resources management turtle survey staff to deal with violators of the new morning beach opening times, particularly since the staff will be expected to complete the surveys earlier than in the past. We also wonder whether NPS patrol staff can consistently provide timely maintenance of ORV-related information and regulatory signs and route markers on the beach, which has always been a challenge in the Seashore’s dynamic beach environment. To effectively implement the proposed changes, it is critical that NPS provides sufficient early morning patrols to ensure compliance with earlier beach opening hours and adequate attention to detail to ensure the timely maintenance of ORV route signs and markers: however, the EA is not reassuring in that regard.
  1. Other – Next Periodic Review: The ORV plan/FEIS (pp. 73-74) calls for NPS to conduct a periodic review (of the Plan) “every five years, after storms or events that Seashore management determines to be a major modification of habitat quantity or quality, or if necessitated by a significant change in protected species status.” The Act, in effect, has forced NPS to conduct an earlier-than-planned review, resulting in changes to wildlife protection buffers and presumably (based on this EA) pending changes in the ORV final rule. As a result of these recent and pending changes, NPS should reset the periodic review “clock” and wait five years from now (i.e., in 2021) before conducting another periodic review or considering further changes in the ORV plan (rather than conducting the next periodic review in 2017 five years after the final rule went into effect). This would allow sufficient time for the new measures to produce results that reveal trends, and there would sufficient data to conduct a reasoned analysis of their effectiveness during the next periodic review. We encourage NPS to make the date of the next planned periodic review clear in its forthcoming decision document for the EA.

In closing, we appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.

Sincerely,

MF Signature

 

 

Maureen Finnerty, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

cc:
Stan Austin, Southeast Regional Director, National Park Service

Jon Jarvis, Director, National Park Service



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This page last modified: March 19, 2016 @ 7:17 pm