History of NPS at OBX

NCBBA Newsletter Editorial
Oct., Nov., Dec. 2008
Director Harry Nash, Editor

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana

The National Park Service released a Park Administrative History Document on September 3, 2008. A copy of that press release is in this edition. I encourage each of you to go on line and read this document. This document reviews the promises, the legislation, the politics and the administrative policies that have put us where we are today in our relationship with The National Park Service, various user groups, the courts and Congress. It clearly shows that Gordon Robertson, in his guest editorial, is on target and that congress is the one who needs to review the legislation passed and take action to see that our National Seashore Recreational Areas are administered for the purposes they were created for. Remember, Cape Hatteras was the country’s first National Seashore Recreational Area.

Times were tough in the 1930’s. The economy was bad, people were out of work and life was tough. The government was creating jobs by putting people to work on public works projects. One of these projects was erosion control along the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. There was a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Virginia Dare near Manteo. The North Carolina Beach Erosion Control Project was established under the administration of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and 4,000 to 5,000 young men were to be provided jobs. This project brought national attention to the undeveloped and unspoiled lands involved. There had been interest and promotion of a state park in the area and this erosion control project furthered national interest in a national seashore. In 1935 a nationwide survey recommended preservation of twelve coastal areas as national seashores, with North Carolina’s Outer Banks considered the most promising.

At this point Congressional leaders working with state and local leaders and businessmen started the legislative process that would lead to the establishment of the nation’s first national seashore.

In 1936 legislation was passed to allow the National Park Service “to gather data helpful in developing a plan for coordinated and adequate public park, parkway, and recreational-area facilities development for the people of the United States” and to assist local governments in planning such facilities. It is important to remember, as a nation we already had National Parks. This legislation was to add “recreational-area facilities” to the existing National Park Service’ Parks.

1936 also saw the U.S. Lighthouse service abandon the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse which was in turn acquired by the National Park Service under the provisions of the National Historic Sites Act of 1935. A proposal to create Cape Hatteras National Monument by combining the small lighthouse property with the adjacent state park was promoted. At the same time the Works Project Administration agreed to the National Park Service taking complete responsibility for the Cape Hatteras beach erosion control project. One must keep in mind the importance of this project. The government was on record on the importance of this project “to protect property and to promote and encourage healthful recreation of the people”.

On August 17, 1937 an Act of Congress authorized the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Note there was no “Recreational Area” in the official title. Its purpose was to preserve the area’s “primitive wilderness”, a cause of later concern as you will see, and to provide recreational access to the general public. Because of concerns about the recreational purpose of the area and concerns over the restrictions a park or “primitive wilderness” might have on the use of the seashore, Congress amended the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Act authorizing legislation to permit hunting and added “Recreational Area” to the title to help emphasize the “recreational” orientation of the proposed seashore. At this point the legislative intent is clear. The legislation was to allow the establishment of a National Seashore Recreation Area with the express purpose of protecting the land from development, thereby ensuring future generations would have the benefit of enjoying recreational opportunities for generation after generation. It was also clear at this point that the Park service was responsible for erosion control.

Funding issues, World War Two and oil exploration on the Outer Banks delayed action on getting the lands needed for the Seashore. In January 1950 the U.S. Coast Guard reactivated Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The CCC erosion control projects have created enough beachfront to protect the facility. The next day the governor of North Carolina reactivated the Cape Hatteras Seashore Commission. The push for the first National Seashore Recreational Area is once again on track. To sweeten the deal Congress granted an easement to allow the State of North Carolina to construct and maintain a roadway through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. You may recall the recent attempt to get the road off of Pea Island as part of the Bonner Bridge Replacement. Keep this in mind as you read on.

As a result of very intense work by many, funds are raised through contributions from private foundations and the State of North Carolina. Conrad Wirth becomes Director of the National Park service and he takes a special interest in the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. All is not going well with the residents of the outer banks. Despite the concessions noted above regarding the name, hunting, small size and a road through Pea Island there are still fears of what might happen. After the Secretary of the Department of Interior encounters a hostile crowd in Norfolk and much political wrangling, Director Conrad Wirth agrees to visit the Outer Banks and meet with the citizens. As a result of his visit he publishes on October 27, 1952 “A Letter to the People of the Outer Banks” in the Coastland Times. “The letter lays out NPS intentions in establishing Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area and forges what many hold to be a social contract between the Service and residents of the villages.”

He committed the NPS to continue erosion control and stated that as one of the reasons for ocean side inclusion of lands in the seashore. He spelled out the boundary lines and assured the villages that they would have room to expand. He encouraged the village land owners to hold on to their property and not sell to land speculators because they would benefit from the coming economic boom.

He stated the following in regard to beach access. “Concerning access to the beach (question 4),— when I met with you I explained that when the lands for the Recreational Area are acquired and become public property there will always be access to the beach for all people, whether they are local residents or visitors from the outside. However, it will be necessary to establish certain regulations, such as to designate places for vehicles to get to the beach, in order to reduce sand dune erosion to a minimum, to manage ocean fishing where large numbers of bathers are using the beach, and to confine bathing to certain areas.”

He assured the people they were partners and that the National Park Service and its staff stood ready to work with the people and cooperate at all times.

Director Conrad Wirth was a good and honest public servant. His intentions were honorable. Because of his efforts and the work of others Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area was to become a reality. Before it could happen, in 1954, the Park Service determined it could administratively use the name Cape Hatteras National Seashore on all but the most formal memoranda and legal documents rather than the more “cumbersome” Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. This marked the beginning of the end of the “Recreational Area”. Later funding provided for funding for “national parks” but not “national seashores”. Congress reacted by amending the funding act of August 1954 to extend its authority to Cape Hatteras National Seashore. This according to the author of the administrative history of Cape Hatteras essentially classifies the seashore as a national park for the purpose of the act. The question is, did it really change the classification beyond the scope of the funding act? I think not. The act refers to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. Director Wirth refers to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area in his address at the dedication of the Recreational Area in 1958.

The seashore became a reality and dedication ceremonies were held at Coquina Beach with a smaller ceremony being held at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on April 24, 1958.Under Secretary Wirth’s leadership other National Seashore Recreational Areas were developed.

In the early 1960’s Morris Udall, Secretary of the Interior, proposed that the national parks be administered according to three separate administrative policies according to whether the area was deemed primarily recreational, natural or historical. The National Park Service implemented new guidelines through three handbooks that defined how the parks would be managed as recreational, natural or historical areas. “Park activists involved in the environmental movement of the 1960’s complained that this would allow the National Park Service to treat parks unequally. In 1970, after Secretary Udall left office, congress passed the General Authorities Act which specifically stated that the National Park Service would treat all parks equally according to the Organic Act and other related laws. “Regardless of the park’s title or NPS administrative policies, the purposes of a national park are found in the authorizing legislation and in any additional legislation pertaining to it.”

From a review of the history of Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area it is obvious that it still is a Recreational Area. The enabling legislation has not been changed. Administratively the name was changed. Congress, acting on the wishes of the environmental movement of the 1960’s, did away with the park services professional management plans and made them adopt a one size fits all style of management. Administratively the Park Service gave up on its promised erosion control program at the insistence of an “environmentalist”. Today “environmentalists” continue to push their agenda. This begs the question, have the “environmentalists” really benefited the National Park Service and our National Parks ,National Seashore Recreational Areas and Historic Sites?

I believe it is right for Congress to take up a review of The General Authorities Act. The Interim Plan needs to be put back in place and the National Park Service needs to honor its commitments it made when the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area was established. Only Congress can untie their hands.

Editors Note;
This editorial was made possible by the information provided in the National Park Service Publication, The Creation and Establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina by Cameron Brinkley, Southeast Region Office, Cultural Resource Division, National Park Service.

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