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Can Sea Turtles and Four Wheel Drives Coexist?

By Stephen Meador

Kure Beach, NC – There's a four-mile stretch of undeveloped coastline in Kure Beach known as the South End. It's part of the Fort Fisher Recreation Area, the only North Carolina state park that allows four-wheel drive access on the beach. In February, the State began charging visitors who wanted to drive along the shoreline. The State also prohibited beach driving at night to protect other beach users, namely sea turtles and nesting birds. Pedestrian access is still allowed at all times. When fishermen and other users complained about the vehicle restrictions, the State compromised and allowed access at night in the fall, during prime fishing season.

Some people want the South End to remain open to vehicles at all times. One of those people is Mike Robertson, owner of the Kure Beach Pier. He calls the South End "a little secret" that he likes to enjoy at night with his family, away from the crowds. One of his favorite South End memories was with his daughter.

[Robertson] We're just standing there fishing and the sun sets, and dolphins are out their playing or whatever, and fish, and birds are flying by, it's just nature doing its thing. Pretty soon it gets dark enough and the stars come out, and she just kinda looks and me and says, 'Daddy, where did all those stars come from?' And I said, 'You know, you gotta get away from the TV and you got to get away from the lights to be able to appreciate stuff like this.'

It's an emotional issue for Robertson, who refuses to give up a family tradition of driving the isolated beach at night. He says the change has soured him on the South End, so he hasn't been down there for months. He says the State had no justification for its action.

[Robertson] I don't think we had a problem at Fort Fisher. And they can't make me think we had a problem at Fort Fisher.

Mike Seigh is a 30-year veteran of North Carolina state parks and the manager at Fort Fisher. He says that as four-wheel drive vehicles have become more common, the impacts on the beach have become more severe.

[Seigh] All we're trying to do is minimize some of that activity at night. We're trying to give access in the Fall and trying to compromise. And of course to a few individuals in Kure Beach that's just not acceptable. They want it the way it was, the way their fathers had it, the way their fathers' fathers had it.

The State imposed the vehicle restrictions to protect endangered wildlife during spring and summer nesting activities, which peak at night. There are many at-risk species within the park, one of which is the Loggerhead sea turtle, a federally listed threatened species. Dr. David Webster is an endangered species biologist at UNC Wilmington.

[Webster] We don't have a lot of sea turtle nests in North Carolina compared to more southerly locations like Florida. But we're important because the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. So North Carolina is important from the standpoint that we produce the majority of the males that constitute the population along the east coast of the United States.

Research indicates vehicles can harm sea turtles and other endangered wildlife on beaches, although data from Fort Fisher is scarce. Engine noise and headlights may discourage sea turtles from coming ashore to lay eggs, which usually occurs between 10 pm and 2 am. This can be particularly disruptive to turtles that return to their natal beaches to nest.

If a turtle makes it to the beach, noise and light may still be a problem. Park officials say that on three occasions last year, vehicles followed female turtles as they searched for a place to nest. The turtles returned to the ocean without nesting.

Still another risky time for a mother turtle is when she's laying her eggs. Because she partially buries herself, she can be difficult to see at night, even to people walking along beach.

For the baby turtles that hatch about two months later, vehicle traffic can also be hazardous. Under cover of darkness, tiny hatchlings must run a gauntlet down the beach to begin their life in the ocean. Judy Larrick is a volunteer who monitors turtle nests on Kure Beach.

[Larrick] The huge ruts that the vehicles make are particularly harmful to the baby hatchlings, which are only two inches. A footprint to a baby turtle can be like a mountain to climb.

Although Larrick and other volunteers help the hatchlings by smoothing a path to the sea, they can't always be there.

Because hatchlings use moonlight or breaking waves to orient their run to the sea, lights from vehicles, streetlights, or even lighthouses can easily disorient them. To keep from distracting the hatchlings, special lights were installed by local business owners, including Mike Robertson on the Kure Beach Pier. However, he says his days of helping conservationists are now over.

[Roberston] This is the first year that I have said NO to conservation groups on the pier. I was not proud of myself for doing it. But you're trying to take something away from me, and you want me to help you raise money so that you can take something away from somebody else, and I'm done with that. I used to think I was an environmentalist, but I don't think I am anymore.

Biologist David Webster says the compromise adopted by park officials is reasonable for both endangered wildlife and beach users. If the park returned to year-round nighttime vehicle access, he says the long-term result could be even more restrictive.

[Webster] If some advocacy group decided to sue the State and the State Parks for neglecting their legal mandate to provide protection for endangered species, it's quite possible that Fort Fisher Recreational Area could be shut down entirely.

Park Manager Mike Seigh wants to avoid that possibility. He says most park visitors don't want to drive on the beach, and those that do prefer daylight hours. He thinks a compromise can be reached.

[Seigh] A good number of people, respected professionals in their field, want to close this park altogether to four-wheel drive truck traffic. I disagree. I believe reasonable access by the public to this park should be balanced with a reasonable effort to protect the resource, and there is a balance and we have to reach that.

Turtle volunteer Judy Larrick just hopes the small crop of hatchlings this year will survive to adulthood. With a one in 5000 or one in 10000 chance, the odds aren't good.

[Larrick] With those statistics, every little hatchling is so important because the odds are so much against them today.

For WHQR public radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.