May 19, 2022
Superintendent Alexcy Romero
Fire Island National Seashore
120 Laurel Street
Patchogue, New York 11772
Subject: Comments on Fire Island National Seashore Off Road Vehicle Civic Engagement Newsletter
Dear Superintendent Romero:
I am writing on behalf of over 2,200 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), who collectively represent more than 40,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. Among our members are former NPS directors, regional directors, superintendents, resource specialists, rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.
A number of our members have worked on off-road vehicle (ORV) management issues at a variety of national seashores, national recreation areas, and national preserves. While we understand that every park unit where ORV use is authorized has its own unique set of circumstances related to that use, we also firmly believe that all areas and trails designated for ORV use within units of the National Park System, including Fire Island National Seashore, must comply with the guiding principles spelled out in Section 3 of Executive Order (EO) 11644 — Use of off-road vehicles on the public lands. See https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/11644.html. Section 3 of the EO states, in part:
(1) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, or other resources of the public lands.
(2) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitats.
(3) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize conflicts between off-road vehicle use and other existing or proposed recreational uses of the same or neighboring public lands, and to ensure the compatibility of such uses with existing conditions in populated areas, taking into account noise and other factors.
(4) Areas and trails shall not be located in officially designated Wilderness Areas or Primitive Areas. Areas and trails shall be located in areas of the National Park System, Natural Areas, or National Wildlife Refuges and Game Ranges only if the respective agency head determines that off-road vehicle use in such locations will not adversely affect their natural, aesthetic, or scenic values.
As described in the subject newsletter, the National Park Service (NPS) seeks to revise the Seashore’s 1987 ORV regulation to address changes in vehicle access and use patterns that have occurred as a result of the dynamic nature of this barrier island; to provide future flexibility as conditions continue to change; and to update and clarify the process for obtaining driving permits. Applicants, especially residents, are concerned that there are not enough permits, and that confirming residency status can be problematic under the current system.
We offer the following comments about the newsletter:
Off-road vehicle (ORV) management has a long history at Fire Island National Seashore (the Seashore) and has come a long way since the Seashore was established in 1964. It has gone from unlimited access with beach buggies and beach taxis driving all along the beach front and dunes; former residents, of what is now the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, drove to their homes nestled in communities in and among the dunes; vehicles were brought to the communities via barges and used to drive between communities. Over time the Seashore exerted control over driving within the Seashore’s boundary and reined in off-road vehicular use to protect the resources of the Seashore. The 1987 rule (36 CFR Chapter 1, Part 7.20) is the latest iteration of the regulations the Seashore uses to manage off-road vehicle use. Over the last 20 years there have been several discussions regarding amending those regulations to address changing conditions and needs of Fire Island, primarily the needs of the Fire Island communities.
Fire Island, unlike most other national seashores, has about 4000 private residences within the Seashore’s boundary. They are located within the seventeen communities that were developed on Fire Island before the establishment of the park. The Seashore’s enabling legislation states that these communities and preexisting commercial uses would be allowed to remain, as long as development was consistent with specific zoning standards. There are no paved roads that connect these communities to each other or to the mainland of Long Island. Access to Fire Island is limited via the Robert Moses Causeway and Bridge on the west end of Fire Island and the Smith Point bridge via the William Floyd Parkway on the east end. The breach created in 2012 in the Fire Island Wilderness prevents vehicular access to the center of Fire Island from the east end of the island.
One of the primary reasons for the creation of the Seashore was to preserve the relatively unspoiled beaches and dunes and prevent continued development of the island via the construction of Ocean Parkway across the Robert Moses bridge and then eastward through Fire Island and exiting at the William Floyd Parkway on Fire Island’s east end. The residents of Fire Island’s communities were instrumental in gaining support for the creation of the Seashore.
The 2016 General Management Plan for Fire Island National Seashore was developed with the long-range goal of working in cooperation and partnership with the extensive number of partner and community organizations, government bodies, and private groups and individuals that make it possible for the National Park Service to manage and protect the Seashore now and in the future.
The goals and objectives for updating the Seashore’s off-road vehicle (ORV) regulation and management plan seem appropriate; however, it is unclear what the problems are with the current regulations for allowing for the flexibility needed to adapt to changing conditions on the island such as the breach caused by Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012 or future sea level rise or other changing conditions. Also, what are the changing use patterns or needs of the communities requiring change? The newsletter states there is a need for updating and clarifying the permitting process and the need for more permits for certain households and clarifying residency. How will this be done?
To address these problems, the newsletter proposes to reduce the permit categories and to eliminate any caps on the number of permits issued except for part-time residents. Unless one is fully versed in the existing regulations for ORV use at the Seashore these two statements are very misleading. There currently are municipal permits and official permits. Will these no longer exist or will they be considered essential services? The definition for essential services doesn’t really suggest that they would. Does the definition for public utilities include cable and wireless technology services in addition to electricity, water and sewer, and land-line telephone?
The dates for vehicular use are also misleading and there is no discussion of the issue of “adequate” waterborne transportation although the newsletter talks about the “premise that waterborne transportation is the primary means of transport to Fire Island and the communities in accordance with the Seashore’s General Management Plan.” The Seashore does not control or regulate the level of waterborne transportation that serves the communities. The ferry companies which provide service to the communities are three private companies that determine the level of service they provide, usually based on profitability of each trip.
The newsletter does not discuss the seasonality of the island, including: closures of areas to vehicles and visitors for protection of endangered species (shorebirds including nesting piping plover and terns); use patterns of visitor areas versus communities; recreational fishing and hunting that allow access via ORVs during the fall and winter months.
A shortcoming with the newsletter and the preliminary proposed action is that there are not the necessary details to fully understand what is being proposed in order to comment. It is unclear how reducing the permit categories, eliminating caps on permits, making minor changes to dates and definitions will support the “roadless character” of Fire Islands and the communities, “protect visitor use and experience and visitor safety” or “update and clarify the permitting process.” What changes will be proposed to update and clarify the permitting process including what new documents are being considered for year-round residency and how “coordination with the towns” will be accomplished?
Without any of this information it is difficult to provide substantive comments regarding the Preliminary Proposed Action. It is unclear what the planning process will entail. It appears that the National Park Service is engaged in a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning process but will it involve preparation of an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS); who is going to direct the process; are there contractors hired to write the plan and regulation; what is the time frame for completing the process; and how will real information be gathered and analyzed to address the supposed problems that the newsletter infers exist?
As there is no clear definition of the problem, the newsletter seems premature, as are the proposed actions. Nor is it clear how the suggested actions might solve any problems. The issues the Seashore is dealing with need to be more clearly articulated. The newsletter should have presented the Seashore’s plan for engaging the public in the process, how the Seashore would collect information, what problems the Seashore currently believes need to be addressed, ask for input on other problems not identified, and outline the schedule for completing the process, and identify where along the way the public will have input.
As we have repeatedly observed at other parks, ORV management is not easy and Fire Island has a unique set of issues and circumstances and a highly articulate and engaged constituency, all of which need to be recognized and considered in the NEPA process. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks recommends that the planning team step back and develop a comprehensive problem statement that articulates the problems the Seashore has identified as well as the problems raised by the constituent groups. Only then should a set of proposed actions be developed and presented for public input. This is not a simple process the Seashore is engaged in; however, without clear understanding of the problems and needs the Seashore is trying to address the process will be difficult and drawn out. The outcome the Seashore is hoping for – a revised rule that has community support and achieves the goals and objectives set out in the newsletter – will be difficult to accomplish without first clearly identifying the problems with the existing ORV regulations and developing solutions that clearly address the identified problems.
In closing, we greatly appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
cc: Gay Vietzke, Director of Northeast Region, National Park Service