SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Perception and Reality In Bird Controversy
Derb Carter and the Southern Environmental Law Center have fought the good fight for a lot of years in North Carolina.
Without the efforts of Carter and the center, a lot more wetlands across eastern North Carolina would have been drained and developed in the 1980s and 1990s. The result would likely have been more shellfish waters closed, more water quality problems and ultimately even tougher environmental regulation for coastal residents so that the environment could recover.
More recently, Carter and the center led the legal fight to prevent the Navy from building a touch-and-go jet landing field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
OK, enough of the accolades. Here comes the criticism.
A few weeks ago, Carter appeared before a congressional committee to testify about one of the center's latest causes -- protecting endangered birds and turtles at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore from fishermen and other tourists who use four-wheel-drive trucks and cars to ride along park beaches.
Carter argued against legislation sponsored by North Carolina's two U.S. senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, to undo new court-ordered driving rules along the seashore.
His testimony was disingenuous in one important way. He tried to convince the congressmen that the court-ordered consent decree represented consensus from the interested parties.
It didn't. He knows it.
In reality, the Southern Environmental Law Center wasn't satisfied with a negotiated process to set interim driving rules before final rules were formed. So, it sought and got a preliminary court injunction and forced the consent decree.
The consent decree is an agreement only in the sense that you agree to give someone money because they've got a gun to your head. A lot of business owners along the Outer Banks and fishermen who frequent Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Island are fighting mad because of it.
That's a shame. My family and I just returned from our vacation on Ocracoke. For most tourists, the new rules regime and beach closures aren't onerous.
More people and four-wheelers were packed into a smaller piece of beach. South Point, a favorite fishing spot, was closed.
Still, I can remember another year when South Point was closed under the previous beach-driving rules. Except for folks who like fishing at night (the beaches now close at 10 p.m.), most people had ample opportunity to have fun and do their thing.
If that sounds like an argument in favor of the consent decree and new rules, it's not.
Here's why: Perception may be more important than reality in this case. The perception, among many along the Outer Banks, is that the Southern Environmental Law Center is being a bully.
And it's questionable how much these rules will really accomplish beyond what would have occurred under a truly negotiated settlement.
Carter and the center may find that, five years hence, their main accomplishment was to generate public backlash and undermine public goodwill. In doing so, their goals of protecting birds and turtles may suffer, not progress.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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