Surf fishers and tourists paid $2.1 million this year for permits to drive on the beach at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, giving the National Park Service a new pool of money to spend for beach-access improvements next year.
The permit fees were implemented in February along with new driving restrictions to benefit federally protected birds and turtles. The new rules also reserve long stretches of shoreline for the exclusive use of folks on foot.
The park service has promised to use permit fee revenues to make it easier for visitors to get to the beaches. Construction is expected to start in 2013 on a multiyear program to build new parking areas, beach access ramps, handicap-accessible boardwalks and other improvements.
The national seashore has a 65-mile beachfront, from south of Nags Head through Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, excluding the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Driving is allowed on 28 miles of the beach during late fall and winter. The ban is extended during the warmer months, with vehicles excluded for miles in front of the Hatteras Island villages and near bird and turtle nests.
One beach-driving advocate said he hoped the money would be spent for the benefit of the people who paid the fees.
“Now that they’ve taken the money from the beach-driving public, whatever monies are spent should go to improve the beach for driving,” said Jim Keene of Nags Head, a past president of the N.C. Beach Buggy Association. “I don’t see them building parking lots to benefit people who do not buy permits.”
Keene favors improvements to several beach access ramps, used by visitors to drive over the dune to get to the beach. And he hopes the park service will build another ramp for drivers along the busy beaches between Nags Head and Oregon Inlet.
“So many people stay up in Nags Head in the summertime, it creates problems to funnel them all into Ramp 4, the only one that’s still open,” north of the inlet, Keene said.
Beach driving has been a tradition for decades along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and long stretches of the beach are difficult to reach on foot. Many ramps are several miles apart.
Visitors who parked near some of the access ramps this summer faced long slogs through deep, soft, hot sand – occasionally infested with prickly cactus – to reach the surf.
“Most of the ramps offer no or very little parking for folks who don’t want to drive on the beach, and might want to walk over to the beach,” said Walker Golder of Wilmington, the Audubon Society’s deputy state director for North Carolina. “You could certainly improve pedestrian access there. It’s tough to walk unless there’s a designated trail.”
Cyndy Holda, a park service spokeswoman, said decisions about the planned improvements would be announced next spring.
“We have had staff working on several options for some parking lot pavement areas and improvements to the ramps themselves,” Holda said. “And we’re looking at adding a couple of new ramps.”