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Give us back our Pole Road and go to the polls on July 20

By IRENE NOLAN

Hatteras Island needs the Pole Road back.

Before Hurricane Isabel devastated Hatteras Island last Sept. 18, there was an off-road-vehicle path from the ferry docks in Hatteras village to the tip of the island.

The road was about 2 1/4 miles long and got its name from the poles that carry power lines to the end of Hatteras, then run under the inlet to bring electricity to Ocracoke Island. Many native islanders called it the Inside Road. It ran parallel to the ocean beach along the Pamlico Sound, and about four short paths allowed soundside access before the road emptied onto the ocean beach.

Many islanders and visitors used the road. In fact, more used the Pole Road than used the ocean beach at Ramp 55, also near the ferry docks. The sand on the ocean beach out to the inlet is deep and rutted and has been for years, making driving difficult. Many folks have had to be towed out.

Not only was the Pole Road usually a smoother trip to the inlet, but it also allowed access to the soundside of the island, which has traditionally been where people enjoyed swimming on days when the ocean was rough, went crabbing and launched boats to go clamming, fishing, or, in the winter, hunting.

The Pole Road had been there as long as most people can remember until Isabel.

Isabel breached the narrow tip of the island in several places, washing out dunes and vegetation and the Pole Road and creating "fans" of flat, sandy beach. These areas are prime nesting spots for colonial waterbirds, and the National Park Service has decided not to rebuild the Pole Road and leave the newly created habitat to the birds.

Instead, the Park Service has established a pedestrian and a vehicle path from the ocean beach to create access to the sound. At the vehicle path, dunes and vegetation were plowed out to create the access, which is about 200 yards of soundside beach. There is also an ORV access near the Coast Guard Station to about 300 yards of soundside beach.

Many islanders and visitors are unhappy about the Park Service decision not to rebuild the Pole Road. Opposition to the decision has come from individuals, the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, the Dare County Tourist Board, the Dare County Chamber of Commerce, the county commissioners and the Outer Banks Preservation Association (OBPA), which promotes free and open access and responsible driving on the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Lawrence Belli, Park Service Outer Banks Group superintendent, says that the Pole Road will probably stay closed for at least the next three years until an off-road management plan is drawn up and implemented.

OBPA board members say it won’t stay closed if they can do anything about it. The group wants the entire 2 1/4 miles restored to pre-Isabel conditions.

"That is all we want," says OBPA president John Couch, "nothing more and nothing less."

Last month, several board members went to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and staff members in the offices of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Walter Jones. Spokesmen for both legislators have said the two are supportive of opening the road.

For sure, there is no easy answer to the Pole Road issue.

Park Service officials say they are following their mandate to balance recreation and protect the environment and wildlife of the fragile barrier islands. They note that the Hatteras Inlet area at the end of the island is one of the largest areas in the seashore that has not felt the impact of development.

The Park Service’s mission includes allowing natural processes to occur on the seashore. That includes overwash from storms, which erodes ocean beaches and builds out the soundside of the barrier islands. However, in most of the seashore, it isn’t possible to let natural processes take precedence because most of the public land borders Highway 12, which must be protected for access to the island, and private property.

On the other side of the issue are folks who note that historically the islanders have had access to all the beach. In fact, before the national seashore was established and Highway 12 was built, Hatteras residents used the beach for a highway to drive to Oregon Inlet to catch a ferry across. Commercial fishermen have fished from the beach for generations. And today’s tourism economy relies on off-road access for fishermen, surfers and sailors, boaters and other beachgoers.

Most of us who live here and visit here are grateful for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. If it were not for the seashore, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands would look like the northern beaches or Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach lined with hotels, motels, and huge cottages. We have villages that are becoming heavily developed, but we still have beautiful, open beaches, dunes and marshes.

We also realize our responsibility to help preserve the environment we have, along with its wildlife. We are happy to share the beaches with nesting shorebirds and almost everyone respects bird closures during the breeding and nesting season.

But the natural processes have not been allowed to take precedence on the islands since the Civilian Conservation Corps built the sand dunes in the 1930s and since Highway 12 was built in the 1950s.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore today is a beautiful place, treasured by many. But it is not a natural area and hasn’t been for more than 70 years. It is the home of some 5,000 people who rely on the 3 million visitors each year to keep the economy going. There are villages, homes, businesses and a highway to be protected.

So why is the National Park Service drawing the line in the sand at the Pole Road? Why can’t the narrow Pole Road corridor be rebuilt, leaving room for the nesting shorebirds?

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore has already been changed by men. It will never be possible to preserve it in a "natural" state, certainly not as natural as other areas, such as the Cape Lookout National Seashore to our south.

It would seem that the Park Service is trying to close the barn door after the horse is already out.

Give the shorebirds plenty of room, but give us back our Pole Road.

 
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