Access Denied: Turning Away Visitors To National Parks



STATEMENT OF HERBERT FROST, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, NATURAL RESOURCES STEWARDSHIP AND SCIENCE, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES, SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS FOR AN OVERSIGHT HEARING ON “ACCESS DENIED: TURNING AWAY VISITORS TO NATIONAL PARKS”

April 27, 2012

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the issue of access to national parks, particularly with regard to the impact of management plans on visitor access and local economies at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Biscayne National Park.

Providing for visitor enjoyment of our national parks is required by the National Park Service Organic Act, along with the mandate to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects of our parks unimpaired for future generations.  They are areas where, in carrying out the Organic Act and other laws, we are responsible for protecting wildlife, ecosystems, water quality, and natural quiet; preserving our nation’s culture and history; educating visitors; and leaving a legacy of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage.  For that reason, the management plans for our parks that the National Park Service develops need to carefully weigh competing requirements, needs, and desires, particularly in terms of visitor use.

The two parks that are the subject of this hearing, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore) and Biscayne National Park (Park), have management plans—final and draft, respectively—that are seen by some as curtailing access to these two popular and highly valued Atlantic Coast parks.  The off-road vehicle (ORV) management plan that was implemented this year at the Seashore has been highly controversial among both opponents and proponents of ORV restrictions. Similarly, the proposed General Management Plan (GMP) at the Park is controversial among opponents and proponents of the plan’s proposed marine reserve zone and non-combustion engine use zone.  In both cases, the National Park Service is acting to preserve and protect the natural resources that are fundamental to the reason both of those areas are included in the National Park System.  These management plans are instruments that will help us invest in the future viability of the wildlife and the ecosystems of the two parks.  Restricting a relatively modest amount of use of these two parks now will help ensure that the public continues to have access to these natural resources over the long run.

The National Park Service does not take lightly the imposition of restrictions on activities that were more freely enjoyed in the past; we understand the disappointment and loss new restrictions can generate.  We are also keenly aware of how important parks are to gateway communities, and how changes in rules for recreational activities can affect the well-being of businesses in those communities.  Our process for developing management plans includes taking into consideration the views of all affected parties.  This public process helps us refine plans in ways that will minimize the disruption to traditional uses and businesses built around those uses while we act to comply with laws and regulations and balance competing interests.  

Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for about 67 miles along three islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Seashore is famous for its soft sandy beaches, its outstanding natural beauty, and its seashore wildlife that inhabits the sand dunes, marshes, and woodlands.  Long a popular recreation destination, Cape Hatteras attracts about 2.2 million visitors a year who come to walk the beach, swim, sail, fish, and enjoy the ambiance of the shore.  In the towns that dot the Outer Banks, a major tourism industry has developed to serve the visiting tourists and local beachgoers, including fishermen.  In 2010, visitors to the Seashore spent approximately $108 million, which supported about 1,700 jobs. 

We appreciate the long tradition and popularity of ORV use at Cape Hatteras, which many anglers use to haul gear to popular fishing spots, and the economic value that activity generates for the local communities.  However, ORV use at the Seashore was out of compliance with laws and regulations for many years, and, after several efforts to achieve compliance faltered, an ORV management plan and special regulation for Cape Hatteras National Seashore were finally adopted on February 15, 2012.  This management plan is being implemented following four years of management of the Seashore under a court-ordered Consent Decree, which imposed new restrictions on ORV use and helped begin reversing the decline of key seashore wildlife species.   

Under the science-based species protection measures of the Consent Decree, many of which are incorporated in the ORV management plan and special regulation, there has been a significant trend of improving conditions for beach nesting birds and sea turtles.  During this period, the Seashore experienced record numbers of piping plover breeding pairs and fledged chicks, American oystercatcher fledged chicks, and least tern nests, as well as improved nesting results for other species of colonial waterbirds.  Although a number of factors, including weather, predation, habitat availability, and the level of human disturbance ultimately affect shorebird and waterbird breeding success, under the Consent Decree the science-based buffers effectively minimized human disturbance of nesting areas at critical times during the breeding cycle.  The number of sea turtle nests in the Seashore also significantly increased under the Consent Decree, which imposed a night driving restriction for the first time.  During 2008 - 2011, the Seashore averaged 129 sea turtle nests annually, compared to an annual average of 77.3 from 2000 - 2007. 

Although the prescribed buffers have resulted in temporary closures of some popular locations when breeding activity was occurring, even at the peak of the breeding season there have generally been many miles of open beach entirely unaffected by the species protection measures.  And, during this same period, annual visitation at the Seashore continued at a level similar to that of 2006 - 2007.  DareCounty, where the Seashore is located, experienced record occupancy tax revenues in 2010 and near-record revenues in 2011, despite the impacts of Hurricane Irenethat, among other effects, closed North Carolina Highway 12 to Hatteras Island from August 27 to October 10, 2011.

The ORV management plan and special regulation reflect the outcome of a five-year long intensive public process that included a high level of public participation through both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and negotiated rulemaking.  In 2006, the National Park Service began public scoping for the plan/EIS, and concurrent with that process, established a Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee whose function was to assist directly in the development of special regulations for management of ORVs.  The committee, composed of 29 representatives of diverse interests, met eleven times, for a total of 20 meeting days, between January 2007 and February 2009.  There were also numerous subcommittee meetings on a number of issues such as agenda planning; natural resources; permits, passes and fees; routes and areas; socio-economic analysis; vehicle characteristics and operations; and village beaches.  Although the committee did not reach consensus on a proposed regulation, it provided a valuable forum for the discussion of a wide variety of ORV management and resource protection issues and generated a large volume of useful information for the NPS. 

During the NEPA and rulemaking processes, the NPS also provided four rounds of public comment opportunities. The NPS received more than 15,000 individual comments on the draft plan/EIS and more than 21,000 individual comments on the proposed special regulation.  The views of those who wanted less restrictive measures than the proposed plan called for were fully considered along with the views of those who wanted more restrictive measures.  Currently, the ORV management plan and special regulation are the subject of a complaint that was filed by a coalition of ORV organizations with the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on February 9, 2012.

Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park, located south of Miami, has over 151,000 acres of marine and estuarine waters, which make up about 95 percent of the park.  Its coral reef is its signature feature.  Some of the park's half-million annual visitors come just to enjoy the scenery and picnic, but the main attraction is the opportunity for water recreation – swimming, snorkelling diving, boating, and fishing. 
Economic data suggest that Biscayne National Park supports more than 400 local jobs.

The process to develop a new General Management Plan (GMP) to update the park’s 1983 plan  began in 2000.  Public meetings were held in 2001, 2009, and 2011.  A preferred alternative, Alternative Four, was chosen in 2010.  During the public comment period in 2011, more than 18,000 public comments were received and more than 300 people attended public meetings.  The National Park Service is currently analyzing the public comments and expects to finalize the GMP by the end of this year.

Two of the proposals in Alternative Four have generated significant interest and controversy:  one is the proposed establishment of a marine reserve zone (MRZ), which would be a no-take area, where fishing of any kind would be prohibited.  The other is the proposed establishment of non-combustion engine use zones.

The proposal for a MRZ is intended to allow a portion of the coral reef a reprieve to recover its health and to offer visitors the opportunity to see an intact and unfished coral reef system.  Coral reefs contain some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, forming important habitat for thousands of corals, algae, fish, and other marine organisms.  They also serve as natural areas for recreation, boost the marine tourism economy, support recreational and commercial fisheries, protect coastlines from storm damage, and function as rich warehouses for genetic and species diversity.

Coral reefs are in decline worldwide and Biscayne's reef is part of that trend.  Peer-reviewed studies from the National Park Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Miami-Dade County, the University of Miami, the University of South Florida, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and others have consistently detailed the loss of biological integrity of the park's coral reef.  The studies show that the reef's coral and fish resources are greatly diminished from previous years.  They also document a clear relationship between healthy fish populations and healthy reef ecosystems – coral reefs need healthy fish.  Biscayne's reef shows dramatic losses of living coral, from approximately 28 percent coverage three decades ago to only five to seven percent today.  Fish populations in the park have been declining for years, with 64 percent of species observed less frequently in 2006-2007 than in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Some species have disappeared from the park completely.

Marine scientists the world over agree that the most effective tool for marine ecosystem repair is a MRZ.  Other tools can be effective for maintaining sustainable fish populations, but the National Park Service mission is different than merely achieving  sustainable fisheries.  Natural coral reef ecosystems contain the full size and age spectrum of all the species found in them.  Fishing size limits, slot limits, and bag limits cannot achieve the goal of ecosystem repair.  Temporary closures produce short-term growth but not long-term population enhancement.  Catch and release is an effective tool for shallow water species but has proven to be far less successful with reef species.

Areas where fish are not harvested also provide important recreational opportunities.  Snorkeling and diving a healthy and vibrant coral reef, full of large fish and brilliant corals, are activities that many people find enjoyable and educational.  MRZs are also good investments in tourism: areas that consistently contain large numbers of big fish, such as grouper and snapper, attract greater numbers of scuba divers, snorkelers, and others interested in seeing beautiful fish in their natural habitat.  In MRZs, large fish often swim right up to snorkelers and divers, providing an experience unmatched in other places.  By allowing Biscayne's reef ecosystem to recover, the proposed marine reserve zone could make the park one of South Florida's premier tourist destinations for divers, snorkelers, and marine enthusiasts.

The draft GMP's preferred alternative would set aside seven percent of the park's waters as a marine reserve zone for this unparalleled recreation opportunity.  The remaining 151,000 acres, or 93 percent of park waters, including 70 percent of the park's reef tract, would remain open to fishing.  The park carefully considered many factors in determining the location and size of the marine reserve zone.  Those factors included the sea floor habitat and habitat connectivity, living coral cover, type of reef, shipwrecks, and minimization of impacts on other users. 

The proposed marine reserve zone has significant public support.  In reviewing the more than 18,000 public comments on the Park's draft GMP, our initial analysis indicates that more than 90 percent of the comments support alternatives containing a marine reserve zone. 

While the purpose of this marine reserve zone is for resource restoration and enhanced visitor experiences, not fishery management, numerous studies show that marine reserve zones are also good investments in fisheries.  Research has shown that within a few years of establishing a zone, "spillover" from fish swimming out of the zone will benefit fishing in surrounding waters.  As fish in a zone become larger and more prolific, many will eventually swim out, leading to greater catches in areas adjacent to the zone.  Most large "trophy" fish caught in Florida are taken adjacent to closed no-take areas.

The other issue that has attracted heightened interest in the GMP is the proposal to establish non-combustion engine use zones.  These areas, commonly known as “pole and troll” zones, are needed to protect fragile resources along portions of the mainland shoreline adjacent to impenetrable mangrove forests, in shallow seagrass areas, and near bird rookeries.  These zones are fairly small and are in the extremely shallow waters (less than 2-1/2 feet deep), which prudent boaters would not motor across anyway.  Many fishermen specifically requested these no-motor zones in the areas where they are proposed under Alternative Four.  The zones will not prevent anyone from entering or using the park, and there are no areas proposed for non-combustion engine use zones that would prevent visitors from launching motorized boats. 

At both Biscayne and Cape Hatteras, the National Park Service is committed to providing for everyone’s enjoyment of the parks’ resources to the greatest extent possible, while ensuring protection of those resources, now and in the future.  We believe that continued implementation of the current long-term ORV management plan and special regulation at Cape Hatteras, and the GMP for Biscayne, once finalized after consideration of public comments, will, over the long term, provide the best course to serve the varied interests of the both parks while meeting the National Park Service’s resource protection responsibilities.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or othermembers of the subcommittee may have.