By Jill J Easton
Freedom to enjoy the outdoors in public areas, like every other freedom, is constantly subject to threats. Some agency or group is always trying to prevent outdoorsmen from shooting, hunting, trapping, fishing or even walking on public land. Mostly, it’s people who don’t understand the balance of nature, fishing, guns, or agencies that put the rights of animals over people.
There are a number of groups that work very hard to protect our freedom to beat feet on the public wherever it may be.
Groups like U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Wilderness Society are out there every day battling in the courts and in the court of public opinion to keep the public woods and waters open and maintain your right to use these lands in any authorized way.
To these groups I’d like to add one more, the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association. These folks are mostly dedicated fishermen who want to maintain driving access along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Make no mistake, these are not speed crazed kids on revved-up dune buggies. These are salt water fishermen and beach-goers of all ages who don’t want to be denied access to the surf and salt water they enjoy.
The NCBBA works alongside beach access folks in several other Atlantic states. These organizations recognize that preventing or reducing vehicle access could lead to further restrictions on fishing, as well as shell collecting, bird watching or just enjoying a day on a less popular beach. Many of these spots aren’t within walking distance of the nearest public parking lot.
NCBBA accepts the need to protect parts of beach areas for the breeding, nesting, hatching and maturation process for eggs and young animals that are born and raised near salt water. Beach closures for part of the year in turtle nesting areas or tern, skimmer or plover colonies can have detour corridors that allow vehicle access while respecting beach animals.
“The NCBBA has taken a leading role in protecting the beaches for all the people while preventing damage to animal nesting colonies,” Bill Smith, President of the organization said.
“We will continue to work to increase access to our beaches, while recognizing the value of that resource. There needs to be a reasonable balance between vehicular and pedestrian access and protection for birds and animals.”
The Beach Buggy folks work with the biologists at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and as necessary, with other state and federal fisheries management agencies to prevent damage to fisheries and nesting areas.
In winter, 44.4 miles of off-road vehicle routes are available on Cape Hatteras Seashore for day and night driving. To drive on many of the beaches like Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head requires a beach driving permit which can be obtained at the National Park Service offices and online.
The beach driving and fishing experience
We met Carol and George Mowers about 4:30 on a beautiful October afternoon. Their rusty Bronco sprouted rod racks and an ice chest on the front, the back of the vehicle was stuffed full of the equipment you would expect to take fishing. Folding chairs, tackle boxes and a lot of miscellaneous pieces.
While we talked George and Carol let air out of the tires to 20 pounds to keep the Bronco from bogging down in the soft beach sand.
“We like to fish here at Oregon Inlet, bluefish run close to shore in the fall and they have an air compressor in the marina parking lot,” George explained. “The compressor keeps us from having to drive several miles on low tires.”
George drove the Bronco about half a mile from the access road on the beach paralleling the water. The partially flat tires had no problem conquering the soft sand. He parked about 20 yards from the outgoing tide; we had arrived. After setting out chairs they started pulling out rods and baiting them from the cooler on the front of the Bronco.
On both sides of their location and as far as I could see, vehicles were parked near the falling tide. Fishermen, picnickers, kids playing ball and a variety of other water worshipers were sharing the gorgeous fall afternoon.
Carol, a volunteer with many of the beach preservation groups, is very knowledgeable on the delicate balance that has to be maintained between allowing fishermen access, preventing beach erosion and protecting plant and animal life along the shore. Like most of the beach users, she and George worry about keeping public land beaches open to driving while protecting the plants and animals that live there.
Carol watched her rod tip for tell-tale signs of a bite and talked about the future of driving on beaches. The rods were in holders jammed in the sand, the fishing lines stayed ominously inactive.
“Spending time on the national seashore fishing is a big part of our lives,” Carol explained. “For so many people fishing on quiet beaches is their major recreation. If it weren’t for driving on the beach we would all be jammed up on the fishing piers or fighting for space on those beaches where crowds of swimmers and sunbathers hang out. It’s hard for fishermen to share the beaches with people who enjoy the ocean a different way.”
After several hours and lots of good conversation the sun touched the horizon and we packed up fishless. Carol and George will continue fishing on good days during the whole winter.
“In the next week or two the bluefish will start to run, then fishing will speed up and get exciting,” George said. “There would be no point to living near these beaches if we couldn’t come out here and fish.”
There can be a balance between protecting wild places and allowing people to enjoy them. With a good attitude and commitment to work together, a partnership between public and private can benefit people and the wild places they love.