NPS officials signed a consent decree -- locals were not given a choice -- and began closing huge swaths of the recreation area's beaches to motorized traffic for bird protection.
Within a year, Cape Hatteras villages -- Rodanthe at the north end and everything down North Carolina Highway 12 to Ocracoke at the south -- saw their businesses shrivel as longtime customers failed to reappear at the Avon Motel, Froggy Dog Restaurant, Frank & Fran's tackle shop, Teach's Lair Marina and John Couch's Carquest Auto Parts, among many others.
Couch and 15 other local business owners each signed their own affidavits swearing the consent decree was destroying their lives and the lives of employees they had to let go. Families were losing their life savings, their college funds and their homes.
At the time, Defenders' president, Rodger Schlickeisen, scrimped along with his $295,641 salary and Audubon boss John Flicker got by on $322,422 -- not counting their handsome $30,000-plus benefit packages.
The consent decree was only temporary, awaiting a "final rule." Last month that rule went into effect with closures even more restrictive than those in the consent decree.
On Tuesday, Couch, president of the Outer Banks Preservation Association, said, "We have birds coming in this week. Tourist families are also coming in, to walk on the fine beach at Cape Point. They come up to an entry and see the new road sign" -- a graphic of a hiker with the circle-backslash "no" symbol -- "and they think it's a joke. Then they realize it's not."
No foot traffic. No car traffic. No traffic, period. Bird use only. "What kills us," Couch said, "is the crazy size of their closure circles -- over 6,000 feet in diameter, more than a mile for one bird. Another bird, another closure circle."
Couch and his neighbors joined with other locals to form the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, which filed suit against NPS, its director, Jon Jarvis, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other federal defendants, to stop enforcement of the final rule and the consent decree.
Jim Keene, director of the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, is the go-to guy on how this disaster started. "The green groups wanted to get rid of ORVs [off-road vehicles] with the usual 'beer belly cowboy bird killers' propaganda," he said. "They don't recognize it was ORV users that first went out and flagged nests so everybody would drive with extra caution. We do more to protect beach birds than these big-shots in their fancy New York City skyscrapers -- we need this beach, and we need it open."
Warren Judge, chairman of Dare County's Board of Commissioners -- with jurisdiction over the bulk of the recreation area -- is profoundly worried. He wrote to Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., "I am deeply concerned about the people's ability to survive the impact of the Final Rule now being implemented by the National Park Service."
In February, Jones introduced H.R. 4094, the Preserving Access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area Act, which would revoke the consent decree and the final rule and establish a workable Interim Management Strategy.
Next Friday morning, the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands will hold a hearing on the Jones bill, which will likely feature testimony by some of these people.
Couch said he thought the message should be "We're waiting for help."
Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.