Thursday, May 21, 2015

NC Cape Hatteras National Seashore

     Welcome back to the Outer Banks, NC.  Today we are on Bodie Island, home of Nags Head and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. 

     This park was established by congress in August of 1937, and is comprised of about 63 miles of sea shore.

     We are with Randy Swilling, who is the Natural Resource Manager for this site and three others - the Bodie Island Lighthouse, Fort Raleigh and the Wright Brothers Memorial a few miles north in Kitty Hawk NC.

Randy Swilling

     Randy has a degree in wildlife biology accompanied with a masters in zoology.  He supervises twenty technicians, half being full time and half seasonal.  Handling plant control, animal management, water quality, maintaining accurate maps and environmental compliance are among their responsibilities.

     The National Park Service is unique in the fact that it is their job to preserve and protect for future generations any lands that congress makes them responsible for - key words "future generations."  This means that (theoretically) all decisions must take a long term view.  And this often includes cultural items such as forts, landmarks, buildings, battlefields, artifacts, natural resources - in some cases entire towns.

    One of the most unique features of this area is that a large southern moving ocean current, the Labrador Current meets the larger Gulf Stream moving up from the south.  That makes this area the southern end of many species' range and the northern end of many other species range. There have been well over 300 species of birds alone that have been observed in this park.  Many unique and endangered species of bird and marine life have nested on these shores for many millennia.

     But the outer banks have been drastically altered in the last 100 years.  During the great depression in the 1930's, men were put to work building miles of dunes along the shore.  That has done much to stop the banks from migrating toward the mainland as they have for since the last ice age.

     Many species of plant have taken hold - many of them introduced and some native to the area that have been able to get a better hold.  Early park records show that these banks were entirely surfaced with sand or mud that migrated from ocean to sound with the winds and the waters.  

     The net result of this is that the banks are shrinking now - rather than the erosion on the shore line accreting on the back side of the island, the erosion is simply washed into the sound behind the islands.  The vegetation allows for many predators that were either not here before or were introduced.  This includes many varieties of snakes, raccoons, domestic cats and others.  These animals feed on birds and bird eggs.  There is also much land that has been turned into residential developments - all of which conspires to put tremendous pressure on the bird populations.

      We, too, are a "future generation," and hopefully many more will follow.  You and I have every right to access the lands that were put in trust for our enjoyment.  So the Park Service must give us access, but balance the impact that our access against their charge to preserve this land for still more "future generations."

Eel grass that grows in the channels and the sound is deposited by currents on the beach

        As you can imagine, this sets the stage for folks of various competing interests to engage in lively conflicts.  Beach access by vehicle has been allowed by the parks, but it is limited during times that species are actively nesting. 

     Clear back in the 1930's there were complaints from citizens about folks driving vehicles through flocks of birds - often sites that had nests full of young.  I think we all have known a few people who would get a few beers in them and think it was cute to chase birds in a car.

     Today, one must purchase a permit to drive on the beach. This does a few things.  First, it keeps the vehicles not designed for off road driving from getting stuck.  

    Second, the program raises money from the fees.  This money allows the Park Service to maintain the vehicle access points, hire law enforcement folks to keep an eye on the beaches and pay those that implement the program.    

     Some of the locals don't care for this at all.  In fact, in the nearby town of Buxton, several restaurant owners have put out the word that National Parks Employees are banned from their establishments.  If I had more time I would interview the owner of one or two of these.  I am curious if they think the resulting additional beer sales bring more income than the Park Employees would spend on lunch.  Or if they would rather have the land developed and have big box stores come in and put them out of business.    

Oregon Inlet; Outer Banks NC

     Then there are those folks who oppose any human presence at all and those folks that would love to put in high rise condos and pave the rest.  These two groups have a lot more money and influence than the locals, so it sets up some pretty interesting situations.

      Randy says that when he steps into a conflict, the best possible path of middle ground is what he has to seek.  He has to weigh this generation desires against all those generations to come - and future generations aren't yet capable of speaking for themselves.  Since fringe folks are not usually satisfied unless everything goes their way, everyone is usually upset with Randy.  He deals with it ok - he figures that if everyone is mad there is a good chance he has found that optimal path that runs through the middle ground.

Charter deep sea fishing boats returning through Oregon Inlet

     Back in the 1800's a hurricane cut a swath through the bank on this stretch of land.  That cut is known today as Oregon Inlet.  

         When we visited Portsmouth Island we saw how that inlet had been plugged by a storm.  As a result this is the only inlet of any size from Beaufort SC to Chesapeake Virginia - a couple hundred mile span.

     As you can see above, the tides and the currents make this a treacherous inlet.  This problem is compounded by the fact that it has not been properly dredged for decades.  I am told that over a hundred folks have lost their lives here in the last century.  

     Just as this is the artery from oceans to the sound, the bridge that runs across Oregon Inlet is the artery that brings people and goods to all of the communities between here and Ocracoke.

     For twenty years the locals have been trying to get this bridge replaced.  There is also a "temporary steel" bridge that was put in after hurricane Isabel cut a half mile swath thirteen years ago that desperately needs replaced.

     These islands are going to keep eroding, moving and reshaping and the big storms are going to keep coming.  But the inlet is slowly closing in on itself and the bridges are deteriorating to the point where it is becoming a public safety issue.  It will be interesting to see where the area stands with the issue five years from now. 

Old Coast Guard life-saving station on Oregon Inlet

     There are also the needs of the commercial fishermen and the deep sea charter fishing industries.  At the closest point to the Gulf Stream on the east coast, boats of any size will soon have to detour for about a hundred additional miles to get into and out of the ocean.

Charter fishing boats at Oregon Inlet

     Although the commercial fishing industry has been hit hard here, the charter deep sea fishing business is thriving.  Additionally, for millions of people these are the only beaches within an hour's drive.  Consequently, millions of people visit this area each year. 

     In fact, during the peak months of the year 250,000 new visitors arrive here each week.  That means 250,000 people are just leaving here too - which requires a lot of effort by the locals to keep up with.

     The area has been able to avoid the big resorts and hotels, but all those folks have to stay somewhere.  We meet Beth Midgette of Midgette Realty.

     The company has been operating here since the 1950's, and handles 525 vacation rental properties.  These range from the small condo type setting to the large ocean houses.

     That is a big range of houses - and correspondingly there is a big range of price difference.  The low end of the range is about $1,100 per week during peak season, with the average being around $2,300.  There are a few that are basically compounds that go for as much as $ 15,000 a week.

     Many are right on the ocean, and they all are fully furnished.  

     Beth says one of her greatest joys is watching the change that happens as the beach works its magic on people.  Folks drive many miles to get here, and on Saturdays traffic gets backed up.  Many are stressed and quite surly.  But, give them a week, and Beth says she doesn't think a bomb going off would disturb them.  Most want the same house year after year, and if not the same house at least the same neighborhood.  

     Beth related the story of a woman who came into the office in tears after a week on the beach.  It was a grandmother who had put together a large family gathering, and she was crying because one of the granddaughters had come to her upset.  The little girl thought that they were all going to live here together forever - she didn't realize they were going to have to leave.

     The vast majority of the traffic arrives from the north, having crossed the bridge to the outer banks at Roanoke Island.  But some traffic comes in from the ferries to the south.  Beth makes it a point to show up at the various local, state and federal hearings that deal with issues that impact the community.  Right now she is among those trying to get the bridges and ferries brought up to snuff.  It would seem to be a simple task, but when you have special interest groups and governmental agencies competing for power simple reasoning often seems beyond reach.


     I met a guy that has a short term bicycle rental business on a popular beach.  He said that when newlyweds rented a tandem bike, you could tell in no time at all how the marriage was going to go.  It bodes ill if they can't team together on something so simple as a bicycle. 

     If the rhythm of the waves, the bracing breeze and a good book are not enough to keep one occupied, there are plenty of toys available.

     I have never tried wind surfing, para-sailing or stand-up paddling.  Perhaps we will have to do a story on them soon . . .

    That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd."  This is one of the commercial fishermen.

     And today's parting shot - a kite.  They have gotten so fancy.  I saw one shaped like a hornet that made buzzing sounds as it swooped and climbed.

On the personal side - I am meeting great people on this stretch of coast.  Life is good.

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Warmest to you all !!

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