Special Report

The Road to Surfdom

Storied Hatteras Island is threatened with depopulation the modern way.

By 4.26.12

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America's roads connect us with our lives. They carry us on mundane trips to work and school, adventurous treks to parts unknown, visits to friends and family. Roads are the arteries of the American Body, providing the lifeblood of commerce and recreation. But one road in particular has become the target of environmental tyranny, posing a grave threat to the people who rely on it for their livelihood and safety.

It is called Highway 12, a simple two-lane affair that serves as the lifeline for the villagers who live on Hatteras Island, situated among North Carolina's fabled Outer Banks. A narrow barrier island anchored many miles in the North Atlantic Ocean -- some refer to it as a giant sandbar -- Hatteras has but one main road which is the only way on or off the island other than boat or private aircraft. It is a necessity of life for the sturdy fishermen, shopkeepers, and tradesmen whose families have lived on Hatteras for generations.

No one is more aware of the delicate balance between nature and humanity than Hatteras islanders. They know their stewardship of the environment is both practical and necessary. They also understand that the Atlantic isn't always content to respect the province of dry land and, as such, Hatteras is subject to occasional ocean washovers when hurricanes or Nor'easters come too close for comfort.

The island and Highway 12 were most recently breached by Hurricane Irene in August, 2011. The storm washed away five sections of road; four were filled in and one required a bridge spanning more than 650 feet. It also sparked renewed interest in a radical idea, noted in passing in a September 28 Fox News article: "Depopulate Hatteras Island, stop the repair and rebuilding, and simply turn it back over to nature." But the preferred means of modern depopulation is not physical force. It is economic force, leveraged on the fulcrum of militant environmentalism.

A Media Narrative Emerges
The cost of rebuilding Highway 12 after Hurricane Irene amounted to roughly $11 million, a price that had activists howling before the repairs were even complete. As early as October 8, 2011, the Los Angeles Times quoted East Carolina University geologist Dorothea Ames saying the state was, "just filling those holes in the road with money."

The LA Times article, provocatively titled "Ready to stick a fork in Hatteras Island road," also noted the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) lawsuit to block construction of a new bridge that would replace the half-century old Bonner Bridge over which Highway 12 passes between Hatteras Island and Bodie Island to the north.

A few months later, critics were in high dudgeon, hectoring readers of the New York Times in a March 5, 2012 article about the folly of, "our own little bridge to nowhere," unsubstantiated claims that Highway 12 will "bankrupt the state," and road maintenance as "totally a lost cause."

Stanley Riggs is a particularly vocal critic of keeping Highway 12 open. The East Carolina University geology professor has crunched the numbers and estimates that between $90 million and $100 million has been spent on the road since 1983. He further reckons that keeping Highway 12 open for the next 100 years will cost $930 million.

But economic arguments like these neglect the other half of the equation, that being the value of commerce owing to Highway 12. Hatteras Island and most of the Outer Banks are part of Dare County, which relies primarily on tourism for revenue. It is not an insignificant sum. County officials estimate that tourism generated $834 million in economic impact in 2010 (the most recent year for which full data are available), supporting more than 11,000 jobs and a payroll exceeding $172 million.

Hatteras Island isn't responsible for all of this economic activity, but it contributes more than its fair share. In terms of occupancy receipts for 2011, the revenue from motel, campground and cottage rentals by visitors to the seven villages of Hatteras exceeded $99.5 million, according to country records. That's slightly more than one fourth of all occupancy receipts county-wide even though the island's 4,300 residents represent just one-eighth of Dare County's population. Claims that Hatteras doesn't pay its share of the freight don't withstand scrutiny.

The economy is so robust Dare County is classified as a "donor" county, a designation conferred to municipalities that provide more revenue to the state treasury than they receive in annual appropriations from the capital in Raleigh. But these facts are absent from arguments promoting an agenda that is strangling the economy and are echoed by some of the nation's largest, most notoriously liberal newspapers.

An Underlying Agenda
Riggs, Ames, and a number of their East Carolina University colleagues produced in 2009 a research paper entitled "Eye of a human hurricane: Pea Island, Oregon Inlet, and Bodie Island, northern Outer Banks, North Carolina" noting, among other things:

… the constructed dune ridges prevent the natural, overwash and inlet-driven evolution of habitats that constitute a major component of the "mission and purpose" of both Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Piping plovers, oyster catchers, black skimmers, and numerous species of terns and turtles are critically dependent upon overwash and inlet habitats." (Page 65)

The concern for turtles and plovers is admirable but what of the human habitat protected by those dune ridges? People have lived on Hatteras Island for centuries, long before the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area (its proper name) was established, yet people seem immaterial. As for the ribbon of asphalt that brings life and commerce to island residents, the authors dismiss portions of Hatteras as, "little more than a conveyance for Highway 12."

Professor Riggs and his colleagues have also prepared a science curriculum for middle and high school students exploring the geology of barrier islands. For students contemplating a life on the Outer Banks, the curriculum bleakly instructs them that, "large island segments will totally disappear within the next few decades." (Part 1, Lesson 8)

Elsewhere in the curriculum, students are given reading assignments that include a pair of news articles from 2003. One describes a local state senator as "one of the state's most powerful politicians," with the audacity to work on behalf of his constituents. The second features a Duke University geologist explaining to children that, "Very powerful and very wealthy people live along the beaches. The politically correct thing to do is rush in and help these people who have suffered from an act of God." (Pages 111-113)

It is true that many houses on the Outer Banks are owned by families who live out of the immediate area. It is also true that these beach homes generate roughly half of the $49.3 million in real estate taxes listed in the 2011 Dare County budget. Providing better schools and services to Hatteras islanders through taxes on people who don't utilize them on a day-to-day basis constitutes a win-win for all concerned. As for repairs to Highway 12, villagers and contractors need it for work, school, emergency trips to the hospital and clearing the aftereffects of storms; not exactly the "very powerful" people described to middle school kids.

Placing Environmentalism Above Humans
Geologists aren't alone in targeting Highway 12. The SELC, the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and other environmentalists have waged a lengthy campaign to close or restrict access to the island's beaches, prized attractions for islanders and visiting tourists. So far, they have enjoyed remarkable success in preventing people from using many of the beaches on Hatteras. In some cases, strolling along the water's edge or reading a novel in a beach chair are now illegal. Frustration with environmental activism is so acute, Dare County Commissioner Jack Shea penned a 2010 opinion piece lamenting "a forgotten and ignored endangered species," in the region: people.

The patina of ecological altruism dissolves as human consequences surface. Hatteras Island residents and business owners marked the first day of spring this year by staging a rally and protest march to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, drawing attention to the economic hardships they face as a result of environmental restrictions.

Among the newest restrictions is the requirement that anybody wishing to drive an off-road vehicle on Hatteras beaches -- a decades-old pastime for picnickers, surfers and fishermen -- must undergo a National Park Service (NPS) instructional program and pay a permit fee. The program is designed to protect bird habitat but the new restrictions have already proved frighteningly inflexible.

On April 4, 19 families found themselves trapped by a lunar tide along Cape Point. Caught between the rising ocean and a protected bird area with no place to drive, the NPS denied permission for the families to maneuver their off-road vehicles five feet inside a bird area. One father relayed the story of his harrowing escape from the tide while his two young children wept and vomited in fear.

The economic implications are no less fearful. Bob Eakes, owner of Red Drum Tackle in the village of Buxton, told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot newspaper in January, "We have had a tremendously huge loss from the (National) Park Service rules." How bleak is the future for Eakes' and his tackle shop? "I just don't know if I can stay in business."

Unlike the questionable economic pronouncements of geologists, the plight of these villagers does not merit the attention of newspapers in New York or Los Angeles.

Life on a Sandbar; Not All It's Cracked-Up to Be
Hatteras Island rose from the sea thousands of years ago and the Atlantic will likely reclaim it, and Highway 12, at some point. Whether this reclamation occurs over the next couple of decades or the next couple of millennia is anyone's guess. Professor Riggs and others are convinced that the island's geological clock is about to strike midnight, and their certitude rivals that of a Time magazine cover from April, 1977 which informed us on how we may forestall the coming Ice Age. (Whatever it was they wrote, it must have worked.)

But this belief in the imminent doom of Hatteras Island, whether by accident or design, gives aid and comfort to environmentalists promoting policies that are killing the island's economy. The apparent target is Highway 12 but that is conveyance for a broader goal of forcing people from their homes without optics akin to those of Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.

Those who live on Hatteras understand the sometimes tenuous nature of living on a barrier island, as well as the joy of being in one of America's most unique and storied places, a joy reflected in part by the popular "Life on a Sandbar" memorabilia sold to tourists. Hatteras islanders also possess a deep knowledge of the sea and the skies and the shifting sand, which holds them in good stead when the winds stiffen and shift to the northeast. But it does them little good in confronting the array of political forces that are now bearing down on them and the road that takes them home. 

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About the Author

Scott Hogenson is a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources in Washington, D.C.