Monday, July 6, 2009

COMFORT ZONES: Seeking middle ground between accessing Cape Hatteras and stopping oil rigs offshore

“I’ve started calling this place Hate-eras.”

So longtime local, underwater lensman, and former Lighthouse strongman Russell Blackwood told me this spring. He’s right. Over the past couple years, the rift between the native population and the environmental groups pushing to restrict beach access on Hatteras has bubbled from angry undercurrent into a lava flow of boiling bile and flaming outrage, highlighting an internal fissure that seems fixin’ to blow before summer ends.

There’s plenty of reasons: the economy’s already bad enough without giving tourists a reason to stay home; the closures seem to only be growing in size and scope, applying to non-threatened species and swallowing more key ramps beloved by fishermen and surfers alike; the continued false positioning of the issue as ‘beach driving’ when pedestrian access can be equally limited. And then there’s specific examples of pretzel logic, like when a kiteboarder accidentally got stranded in a no-access zone, earning a $150 ticket from a passing ranger -- but not a free ride. (Instead, they left the offender to stomp his way out of the sensitive area.) Or when a waterline broke to Hatteras Village and there was a push to not to repair it, as if a plover can tell a plumber from a PhD. Or just the sheer brute force of the consent decree, as the consequences for a sign vandalized by a lone individual is to club the whole population with harsher restrictions — the policy equivalent of that corny t-shirt slogan, “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.”

You can read the ups and downs of each closure and issue at and But mostly, I think it all comes back to an inherent cultural disdain -- not just a rural south disdain but an American disdain -- for outside forces telling an indigenous population how to behave. I feel similarly about this offshore drilling agenda, which allows interior states to say “go get ‘em fellas” without feeling or even considering the negative impacts, when I guarantee they’d be the first to cry foul if a potential polluter was moving into their neighborhoods and threatening their way of life.

Now, recently -- especially since I took a role as co-chair of Outer Banks Surfrider – I’ve been called out for being hypocritical. Folks questioning how can I be against offshore drilling and for beach driving when both end up putting more petroleum on the beach. I’ll leave a recent email response below to answer that question, but I think you’ll find it’s more nuanced than a black-and-white, “preserve or pollute” approach. (Ditto for the rigs: if the goal is really to make America ‘energy independent’, then Big Oil should stop fighting renewable energies and legislation that will cut our consumption, and work toward putting us within striking distance of that goal — then maybe we’ll talk about ‘bridging the gap’ with greater exploration.) In either case, you’ll also see it’s a much more pulled-back position than fighting for what “I” want, versus what “they” I want. It’s about finding a compromised position that serves everybody. Not just the people, animals and communities living here now — but moving forward, as well.

It would be nice to see all the parties in this access issue stifle the hate a bit and work toward a long-term solution that preserves the park for all uses. Maybe that’s naïve, but let me use the above-mentioned Mr. Blackwood as an example of former radicals undergoing radical change. For many years, Russell was the most feared monster to lurk in the shadow of the Lighthouse. As he says, “I was an angry man and I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ve wished all sorts of ill will on me, and likely still do.” But somewhere, along the way, he realized that spewing hate and anger and forcing your will upon others can only fuel more nasty feelings and dischord. I’m not sure when that happened — I do know it was long after he barked me back to the beach at the tender age of 13 on one of my first, and better barreling days beneath that black-and-white striped beacon — but I still remember, and use, the explanation he dropped in a phone call roughly a dozen years back: “I learned a long time ago that it’s easier to wear slippers than it is to carpet the world.”

I’ve still yet to understand what any of the involved hardliners have to gain from closing the beach or destroying a nest, but I’d hope they’d that moving forward, they can kill the ‘my way or the highway’ carpet approach, and maybe try on some more flexible slippers. Now here’s that e-response to show what mine look like and why I wear’ em:

“Got your email about the beach driving issue and whether it's a hypocritical stance -- especially considering our current campaign against oil drilling.
None of these issues are ever black and white, but let me try to explain. I'll start with the 'official Surfrider stances.'

No drilling: pretty self-explanatory. It's bad for the environment. It's bad for surf spots. Pretty easy to see why Surfrider is diametrically opposed.

Beach driving in Hatteras (not the best way to describe it since the current situation limits pedestrian access as well, but the name's stuck so here goes): “Surfrider's for 'maintaining responsible access.'”

Without getting too specific -- because I don't know how specific nationals gets -- I'd argue that means finding ways to make sure humans can keep accessing the beach without too much negative impact. That could mean any number of ways: driving permits, different boundary solutions, etc. etc. But I think our point there is: let's take the issue from an approach of "how do we keep people enjoying these resources and maintain them ecologically?"

Unfortunately, from my experience, Audubon, Defenders, etc. are approaching from a strict: "how do we keep the most people out?"

That's the tack that the chapter -- and me, personally -- have the most problem with. And it basically comes down to a pulled back perspective: if humans can't access a resource, they will stop trying to protect it. At that point, the resource is in even greater danger.

I spoke at two of the Neg Reg meetings last year, and my primary points were: a) birds/turtles can't hold protest signs and write elected officials b) fishermen/surfers, etc. are some of the beaches greatest stewards, we should be using them to protect species and not alienate them c) if we alienate them, they will not fight with us when a huge issue comes like offshore drilling (ironically, I made that argument in May -- months before the federal moratorium was lifted) d) give this place a generation or two without access, and it will be easy pickings for developers/drillers/you name it.

I wish I could go on to list just how many way the above groups have pushed back the environmental movement among user groups that should be most eco-friendly, but it seems every time I turn around, there's an example of double standards that only add to the level of distrust. This summer a kiteboarder got beached in an 'off-limits' area; a park ranger wrote him a $150 ticket -- then left him to walk out instead of removing him from the habitat as quickly as possible. When the water line broke to Hatteras Village, they tried to keep it from being fixed. How is a plumber different from a scientist from the birds' perspective? And why not just escort him in if they're worried about him making a mistake?

And if this is a beach driving issue -- why the insistence on removing so much pedestrian access, as well?

I don't know why they're so hardline. I've had talks where an Audubon rep almost acquiesces to various solutions as being potentially beneficial (driving permits for example) but then reverts to a strict, 'these boundaries are the only thing that works' -- even though 'human contact' accounts for just 12% of the birds' mortality rate. (Keep in mind that 'human contact' includes everything from beach driving to folks bringing their dogs to the beach. So a 'no dogs' rule could end up being just as effective.)

Another interesting note -- while we're talking double standards -- how can a group that says global warming is the planet's greatest threat team up with Toyota -- the largest car co. on the planet? Audubon’s argument is they use the cash for greater education. In their perspective, they'll yield a greater good from that funding than the potential bad of promoting a polluter. I'd argue, that – though there may be localized risks -- maintaining responsible human access to our natural resources fosters an enlightened and active community who will fight for its protection for generations to come.

If it's driving permits -- fine. Hell, I'd even consider a solution like I saw in Uruguay at Cabo Polonio, [[see picture posted above]] where they have large trucks with benches on each side that carry groups to the beach like a bus. What I don't agree with is: "Sorry, you humans can't come anymore." Especially when, from my experience, they aren't using the best data science or intent to make sure they're saving the species they're using to justify the cause. (I've got several specifics on this, as well, but don't want to bore you.)

There is a solution here. The problem is, the respective parties -- in some cases on both sides -- don't seem to want to acquiesce a thing. Unfortunately, with the groups who sued holding such a hardline stance it puts Surfrider in the unenviable position of having to take issue with what should be a supposed ally. What's sadder is the current approach has already probably done more damage then good.”

The NPS must make a final decision by 2011. If you want to encourage them to adopt a balanced resolution toward responsible access on Cape Hatteras, Email the Park. You can also email Governor Beverly Perdue. Please keep your arguments polite and logical, and remind them how important the area is to surfing — and vice-versa.

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