The Changing National Seashore: Part 3
Rotating leaders frustrate many islanders
By Catherine Kozak
"The National Park Service's relationships with indigenous and local people must become steeped in understanding, patience, and mutual respect earned over time. The service should value park staff who choose to remain in one post for extended periods of time so they can more fully understand and work with native and local cultures." The National Park System Advisory Board report, July 2001.
It was a stormy evening in mid-June on Ocracoke Island. Francis Peltier, until recently the superintendent of the Outer Banks Group of the National Park Service, was meeting with local residents at the Ocracoke Community Center. The remnants of Tropical Storm Allison sent dark clouds moving swiftly over the island. Thunder rolled over the flats; an occasional tropical downpour added to the stickiness.
Inside, the atmosphere was somewhat less stormy, but no less charged. Peltier stood leaning casually against a rail, fielding questions. As he answered, he threaded in and out of 20 or so people in the audience, by all appearances, a relaxed accessible manager.
But islanders, he knew, had issues. And they were hot about them.
Not enough parking at the Ocracoke Lighthouse. Trash cans and picnic tables removed without notice. Questionable methods for fighting brush fires. Feral cats that villagers had cared for captured by rangers and taken to the animal shelter.
Peltier said he would work with the residents as best he could. Villagers responded by encouraging more discussion of policy before it's suddenly announced to the people.
"We're not going away," a resident tells him. "We're like mosquitoes."
By August, Peltier was gone, replaced by Lawrence Belli, a veteran park manager most recently from Florida. Peltier, who was transferred to the regional Atlanta office, was on the Outer Banks for just 18 months.
It was another disappointing encounter with a park manager, said Ocracoke native Rudy Austin. "The last superintendent that locals had any respect for was Tom Hartman," he said.
In the past seven years, Outer Bankers have had to deal with four different park superintendents. Before then, Tom Hartman was on the job for 13 years and was able to gain what no superintendent has been able to since: local trust.
"Hartman was fair," said Carol Dillon, owner of the Outer Banks Motel in Buxton. "He intermingled with the people and got their views. He acted like he cared what the people thought."
After Hartman retired in 1994, Dillon said she has had virtually no contact with any other superintendent. All she has seen, she said, is continuation of policies that don't make any sense to her.
Flashback a half-century.
Then-Park Service director Conrad Wirth's 1952 letter to the Outer Banks people, when he promised that the dunes would be maintained, sought to reassure residents of the agency's intentions. Islanders, apparently, were convinced. But over the years, the oft-quoted letter has become a blueprint to locals proving what they characterize as Park Service duplicity. Not only did Wirth say the dunes would be maintained, he also promised that the seashore would be accessible.
". . . 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."
Although Wirth also cautioned that certain regulations controlling access may be necessary, islanders have latched on to the words "will always be access to the beach" to defend their tradition of beach driving.
The park that eventually became the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was a tough sell on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands then; today it's a tough management challenge.
"The Park Service aggravates me to death with their `natural this' and `natural that,' " Austin said. "That's baloney. They did away with everything that was natural when the dunes were built and the grasses and trees were planted."
Before the dunes were built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the sea would wash over the barrier island in storms, depositing sand its wake in a natural process of beach renewal. The shoreline was in constant motion.
"Natural" on the Outer Banks today means buildings being swallowed by sand, houses being washed into the ocean during storms, roads washed out, beaches severely eroded in nor'easters, boats caught by wicked currents and grounded by ever-changing shoals. With millions of dollars in income and tax revenue now at stake, and the thousands of jobs, homes and lives that are affected, the Park Service has yet to abandon the Outer Banks to the whims of nature.
When the agency's director announced in 1973 that the future national seashore policy would adjust to coastal processes rather than attempt to control them, the Outer Banks, by virtue of its extreme environmental forces, became a test case of policy and management versus people and infrastructure.
The goal should be a realistic balance, not a rigid allegiance to policy, former superintendents said.
"Policies are made by man and manipulated by managers," said Bill Harris, Seashore superintendent from 1975 to 1981. "The environment you've got is not the environment nature put here. It's the environment man put here."
But if the Park Service credo is living with nature, it has yet to communicate exactly what that means to the Outer Banks.
Harris said that for the first 20 years of the park, the average superintendent stayed only two years giving the local people no chance to get to know him.
"So you don't have a continuity of management," he said. "There's been a certain amount of arrogance from managers toward local people. Partly because managers come and go in succession, the Park Service did not always employ the best PR strategy in dealing with local issues."
And as a rule, he added, most managers have not involved themselves in community activities, leaving residents with the sense that they had no ear at the local headquarters.
"Because the people could never identify with the manager, they would immediately go to their congressman," Harris said.
Hartman said he learned early on that "you get out, you know your resource, you know your community." Soon after he began work on the Outer Banks, he found himself on the road 80 hours a week, talking with islanders and keeping all the levels of government briefed. And over time, he saw the benefit of communication and compromise.
"I loved the people on Hatteras and Ocracoke," he said. "After a while, they knew that if they argued with me, I would argue back. However, if that's all we did, then the product would be just that argument. It would not be productive."
Managers have to work within the strictures of legislation, but there's wiggle room in enforcement of policy, Hartman said.
"You don't hide behind policy," he said.
Recent Park Service announcements illustrate the malleable nature of policy. After years of not interfering with the Corps of Engineers in dredging Oregon Inlet, the Park Service this year said that environmental permits will be required to dredge a spit of accreted Park Service land. And to the amazement of many, the agency asserted its ownership of the land under the inlet information that was seldom mentioned in the past.
Highway 12 between Buxton and Avon was relocated to the west last year because of problems with beach erosion and ocean overwash. Many islanders favor renourishing the beaches, but the Park Service has said it opposes this solution.
-Photo by Drew Wilson
At a recent meeting of the Outer Banks Task Force, the panel studying N.C. 12 problems, the park acted in a similar fashion when it announced, after years of sitting through discussions with numerous agencies about widening beaches on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, that, by the way, beach nourishment is against Park Service policy.
Then there's the beach driving issue. Many islanders got very cranky after the park management decided in late 1999 that the Seashore needed to create a beach driving management plan. But the fact is, the park was supposed to have one done in the 1970s.
A park spokesman said work was done then on a beach driving plan for Hatteras, but it apparently was lost in a bureaucratic black hole in Washington. A legal action filed in December against the Park Service by San Francisco-based environmental group Bluewater Network prompted the agency to look again at its off-road vehicle management plans.
While a survey is being conducted on beach driving in the park, new superintendent Lawrence Belli, who started in August, has been putting out feelers and talking with islanders about the issue. At a recent meeting with the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, he told members that he does not intend to ban off road vehicles on the beach.
So far, so good, locals say.
"I think that he's got a lot of experience and he's doing a different style of management than Francis," said John Couch, chairman of the Outer Banks Preservation Association, a pro-beach driving group based in Buxton. "I hope he's looking at a bigger picture rather than taking one issue and exhausting it to death. I'm hoping the ORV issue will at some point just be resolved . . .
"We are encouraged that Mr. Belli will be responsive and accessible to our concerns. He's a pretty smart guy he's no dummy. But I don't know how much authority he's got."
Belli said he's learning as he goes.
"The beach driving issue is pretty complex. It's not something you can just jump into and say `We're going to lean this way, or that way,' " he said.
With a nation at war and budgets overstressed, it's not easy today being part of a federal bureaucracy. Belli inherited the headaches of broken steps at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and a leaking roof at Wright Brothers National Memorial, two of the park's most prominent attractions. And while he's been seeking money for those repairs, he's also looking for funds to plan a huge celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight in 2003.
But that's not the least of his problems with the First Flight Centennial.
Since 1994, the First Flight Centennial Commission, a state panel established that year by the General Assembly to plan the event, the First Flight Centennial Foundation, a non-profit fund raising organization, the First Flight Society, a private group that has staged anniversary events at the memorial for decades, the town of Kill Devil Hills and Dare County, where the flight took place, have been trying to get on the same page to plan and fund the centennial celebrations. Politics and miscommunication and lack of funds are some of the myriad of complications that have hindered progress.
"The Park Service has done a very poor job of managing the programs because they have allowed the in-fighting to continue to the detriment of planning a major celebration of a very historic event," Harris said before Belli arrived on the barrier islands.
But Belli, who has made the centennial event his number one priority, said that the Park Service recently agreed on a calendar of events and has been working successfully with the commission and the county on planning activities.
As for the rest of the park, Belli said he realizes that the human element can't be dismissed in management, especially in maintenance of dunes and beaches.
"We've got to do a certain amount of this now because we have all these human facilities," he said. "But the more we do things that lean toward protecting natural processes, the more we can protect these beaches."
Taking his cue from Hartman's style, Belli said he will stay in touch with folks, perhaps by setting up a way to meet on a regular basis to update them about policy and management issues.
"That's where you need to go out and explain it to people personally, as much as you can, be able to answer questions," he said. "We don't always have to agree, but you have to understand why something was done."
Maybe this go-round, there's potential to improve the relationship between the Park Service and the people, said Ocracoke's Rudy Austin, a former ferry boat captain not known for mincing words.
"If he stays here long enough," Austin said, "he acted like he is somebody we could work with."
(Irene Nolan, editor of The Island Breeze, contributed to this series.)