Park History: How the National Seashores Came to Be
For years, summer trips to Cape Cod were an annual ritual for my family. My parents had retired to the Cape, and our boys loved romping in the surf and building castles in the sand. Lobster feasts, game-fishing, and whale watching were added benefits, as were exploring the seashore’s lighthouses, roaming its dunes, and looking for sea creatures in its mudflats.
Did the boys realize that their frolicking largely was within the boundaries of Cape Cod National Seashore? Probably not. But what mattered more than that realization was that the national seashore existed and protected a long swath of the Cape from development and for the general public’s enjoyment.
The park system’s expansion to the surf dates to the 1930s, when, as part of a New Deal effort to better utilize our country’s natural resources, a study pointed to seacoast beaches as being suitable for the public’s use, notes Dr. Robert Janiskee. This study led to the creation of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 1937, he adds.
“A second seashore study in 1955 urged prompt action to protect beaches,” says the professor, who teaches an online course on national parks through the University of South Carolina’s Independent Learning division. “Private use was growing rapidly, and it was becoming much more costly to acquire land. Priorities were established, and this led to efforts in the 1960s and 1970s that brought the national seashore total to ten.”
Along with Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras, those national seashores include Cape Lookout, Point Reyes, Assateague Island, Canaveral, Cumberland Island, Fire Island, Gulf Islands, and Padre Island. Of course, over the years these seashores have been centers of controversy as user groups squabbled over what is appropriate for a national seashore. Disputes over personal watercraft and ATVs are just two of the most visible these days.
Here’s a rundown of our national seashores, courtesy of Dr. Janiskee:
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Situated in the scenic Outer Banks region of North Carolina, Cape Hatteras National Seashore protects a windswept 70-mile stretch of the Outer Banks coastline that encompasses unspoiled beaches, huge sand dunes, wild horses, coastal marshes that are vital for migratory waterfowl, important historic sites and structures, picturesque Ocracoke Village, and many other interesting natural and cultural attractions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the 5,915-acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge within the park’s borders. Although authorized in 1937 as America’s first national seashore, Cape Hatteras was not actually established until 1953. Since then, it has become a major tourist attraction, attracting about 3.1 million visitors a year.
The park’s signature feature, the picturesque Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, is one of the world’s tallest brick lighthouses (208 feet). Cape Hatteras is noted for its high quality beach-oriented recreation. Depending on the time of year and the weather -- which can get very nasty -- this national seashore offers excellent auto touring, historic sites (including lighthouses and a lifesaving station), birdwatching, boating and sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing, sea kayaking and canoeing (in the marshes and sheltered waters), swimming and snorkeling, beachcombing, surf fishing, shrimping, seaside camping, kite flying, and the best wreck diving and surfing on the Atlantic Coast (some surfers call Hatteras “Hawaii East”).
Many difficult issues confront park managers. Since Cape Hatteras experiences an inordinate number of severe storms, including hurricanes that can occur at any time from June through October, public safety, beach erosion, and related storm damage are major headaches. Heavy development of beach-oriented private land and the growth and sprawl of municipalities in the park’s vicinity have marred the viewscape, increased traffic congestion and noise levels, degraded air and water quality, put further pressure on groundwater supplies, and yielded additional significant problems.
Among the other concerns are law enforcement, pedestrian and vehicular damage to dunes, sewage disposal, Oregon Inlet development and marina operations, management of the park’s wild horse herd, and protection of sea turtle nesting sites.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Established in 1966, Cape Lookout National Seashore consists of three undeveloped barrier islands – North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks -- extending about 56 miles along the lower Outer Banks of North Carolina from Ocracoke Inlet on the north to Beaufort Inlet on the southeast. People who have visited the nearby Cape Hatteras National Seashore and have been bothered by crowds and the heavily developed character of the park’s vicinity are delighted when they visit Cape Lookout and find that this more isolated park has a remarkably pristine character – pretty much as it was when the first European settlers laid eyes on these shores -- and less than one fourth as many visitors (about 716,000 a year).
People can get to Cape Lookout only by private boat or by using public ferries that depart from Harkers Island, Beaufort, Morehead City, Atlantic, Davis, and Ocracoke, North Carolina. When they arrive at Cape Lookout they can choose from among many recreational options, including picnicking, primitive camping, swimming (no lifeguards), shelling, wildlife viewing, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, hunting, visiting historic sites (including two historic villages and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse), hiking, and beach driving (not allowed on Shackleford Banks).
Hikers and motorists do need to be aware that the deep sands of the islands can make walking and beach driving difficult. Park officials must cope with problems such as hurricanes and other severe weather, beach erosion, vehicular damage to dunes and beaches, stranded vehicles, water rescue situations, personal watercraft use, and regulating the size of the wild horse herd.
Assateague Island is a windswept coastal barrier island that stretches about 37 miles along the Delmarva Peninsula shoreline and encompasses about 48,000 acres of land and water – most of it in a fairly natural condition -- in Maryland and Virginia. The heavily developed Ocean City, Maryland, resort area lies near the north end of the island, and the town of Chincoteague is at its south end. Three government agencies administer the beaches, salt marshes, ponds, and other natural and cultural assets of Assateague Island. Since 1943, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has managed the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies the Virginia portion of the island and is renowned for its annual Pony Penning (wherein the pony herd is rounded up and swum to the mainland, and most foals and yearlings are auctioned off to maintain a herd size of about 150 animals). The state of Maryland owns 650 acres of the island and its Department of Natural Resources manages it as Assateague State Park. Since 1965 the Park Service has managed the remaining 39,723 acres (all but 16,000 acres of which is water covered) as Assateague Island National Seashore.
Assateague is the only nature-based national park serving the densely Middle Atlantic seaboard, so it is easy to understand why it functions as a playground that attracts about two million visitors a year. Although the main attractions are the sandy beaches and watchable wildlife, visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities such as auto touring and biking, seaside and canoe-access camping, swimming on lifeguarded beaches, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, backpacking, surfing, fishing, crabbing, clamming, ORV riding in designated beach zones, and visiting the Assateague Lighthouse.
There are ample opportunities to watch wild ponies, which roam throughout the national seashore from seaside to bayside.
When it was established in 1966, Massachusetts’ Cape Cod National Seashore was considered an urban-oriented park unit and given a high priority because of its high quality, vulnerability to development, and especially its proximity to Boston and ability to serve the heavily populated southern New England region. Because the Outer Cape Cod region has a long history of seaside-oriented settlement, which has yielded an urban center at Provincetown and an area population exceeding 220,000, it was necessary to create a fragmented park with numerous inholdings and special arrangements with landowners, municipalities, and the state. Today, this heavily used seashore (~5 million visits a year) encompasses over 43,000 acres -- nearly half of which is water -- and protects ocean beaches, dunes, woodlands, freshwater ponds, marshes, and historic sites such as the Highland Light (the park’s signature landmark), which was recently moved 450 feet inland after being threatened by beach erosion.
Visitors can enjoy auto touring, fishing, boating, sunbathing, swimming (if you like cold water), beachcombing, whale watching, visiting lighthouses and life-saving stations, hiking, hunting, and even driving on the beach (by permit only).
As might be expected of a very popular park in a heavily developed area, Cape Cod poses a wide array of problems for management. In recent years park authorities have had to deal with overcrowded sites, traffic congestion, vehicle damage to bird nesting areas, air and water pollution, groundwater extraction and contamination, beach erosion, historic structure deterioration, declining forested land, expansion of the Provincetown Airport, and commercial fishing and crabbing.
Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore was established in 1968 when the Park Service assumed responsibility for an 80.5-mile stretch of coastal barrier extending along the Gulf Coast of Texas from the Corpus Christi vicinity to Brownsville on the Mexican border. This national park features one of the longest nearly unbroken coastal barriers in the world.
Padre is noted for its wide, sandy, and “drivable” beaches, excellent seaside camping, water and beach recreation (sunbathing, swimming, fishing, beach-combing, picnicking, sailing, boating, water skiing, windsurfing, scuba diving), abundant bird and marine life, and critical habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife species. The beach areas readily accessible from Corpus Christi are heavily visited, with surges at times such as the college Spring Break season.
Padre poses some serious problems for management, involving such diverse issues as resource damage related to 4WD-driving on the beach (which is legal), marine trash and tar accumulating on the beaches, threats to the critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and natural gas exploration and extraction activities within the park’s borders.
In recent years, Padre has experienced increasingly serious drug trafficking and illegal immigration originating from northeastern Mexico. By 2005, few visitors had been injured or threatened by these activities, but there is a risk of ugly confrontations with potentially tragic consequences.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Established in 1971, the 135,600-acre Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches 160 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island in Florida. Today it remains the country’s largest national seashore. In many ways, it is also the most complicated.
This park consists of eleven major units in two separate states, Florida and Mississippi. Parts of it are on uninhabited islands off the Mississippi shore, parts are on automobile-convenient sites in and near the heavily populated Pensacola urban area, and more than 80 percent of it is covered with water. The dry part has a lot to offer, however, including sparkling beaches of sand so white and fine that it has been likened to “spun glass.”
Visitors – some 4.9 million a year -- not only enjoy picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing on the remarkable beaches, but also camping, hiking, horseback riding, bike riding, boating, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, salt water fishing, hunting, beachcombing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and visiting sites of historic interest (including several 19th century forts). Nature enthusiasts can visit Petit Bois and Horn islands, two federally protected wilderness areas in Mississippi waters that are said to be the most pristine offshore islands in the Lower 48 states.
Wildlife viewing is a popular activity at Gulf Islands, since hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and other wild species inhabit the park’s variegated habitat, which includes blue water deeps, salt water marshes, seagrass flats, bayous, dune fields, and stands of palmetto, scrub live oak, slash pine, loblolly pine, and mixed hardwoods.
Managing Gulf Islands National Seashore is more than routinely difficult. Violent storms are a special hazard along this coastline, which is often in the path of strong hurricanes that create severe erosion, flooding, and related damage. (For example, most of the Fort Pickens and Santa Rosa areas were badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan on September 16, 2004, and were still closed five months later.) Vandals and illegal collectors threaten fragile archaeological resources and historical sites. Offshore gas drilling operations mar the viewscape and heighten the risk of water pollution. The use of personal watercraft (PWCs) is highly controversial, with the Park Service favoring a permanent ban in seashore waters and many PWC enthusiasts clamoring for greater access.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
This seashore, which is located in Georgia’s Golden Isles, was established in 1972 to protect an 18-mile long, 57 square-mile barrier island with long stretches of unspoiled beaches and dunes, saltwater marshes, maritime mixed hardwood forests, freshwater lakes, wild horses, and plantation-era historic structures.
Despite its proximity to Jacksonville, Florida, Cumberland Island has remained one of the most isolated parks in the Lower 48. That’s because this remarkable natural treasure is accessible only by private boat or the concessioner-operated ferry service based in the nearby village of St. Marys. The seashore is notable for its abundant bird and animal life, being home to more than 300 kinds of birds as well as loggerhead turtles, alligators, diamondback rattlesnakes, white tail deer, raccoons, and many other species, including a herd of wild horses.
Being so biologically rich and lightly developed, it is no wonder that Cumberland Island was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1986 and has nearly 9,000 acres of federally protected wilderness. Visitors to this seashore enjoy camping, hiking, boating, sea kayaking, surf fishing, and hunting. Visiting historic sites is also a treat on Cumberland.
Though mostly wild today, the island was fairly thoroughly tamed by the late 1800s, with a road system and about 16,000 acres in plantations producing Sea Island cotton and other cash crops. In addition to mansions and other relics of this era, there are structures built by wealthy residents (such as the Carnegies) who used the island as a family retreat.
Managers at Cumberland must deal with a range of issues and threats. One especially bothersome problem is wilderness protection. There has been a nagging succession of proposals to build more roads on the island and allow widespread use of cars, ATVs, and other motorized vehicles that destroy wilderness values and threaten other park resources. Among the other managerial concerns are ecosystem damage caused by the park’s wild horses (first introduced in the 1700s), the deterioration of historic structures, sport hunting (the island is temporarily closed during periodic managed hunts), and dealing with the island’s private property owners, some of whom oppose wilderness protection and are in favor of more road construction and tourism-related development.
Canaveral National Seashore
Merritt Island is a long, narrow coastal barrier situated near Titusville at roughly the midway point on Florida’s Atlantic Coast (between Jacksonville and West Palm Beach). In the early 1960s America’s premiere rocket and space shuttle launch facility, the Kennedy Space Center, was constructed on the southern end of Merritt Island. Then, in 1963 a large chunk of the Island was designated as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and placed under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management. Finally, in 1975 much of the remainder of the island -- a big 57,662-acre tract with nearly 25 miles of beachfront – was set aside as the Canaveral National Seashore. It made good sense to do this, since this part of the island is only lightly developed and contains a delightful array of clean sandy beaches, tropical mangrove estuaries, salt marshes, lagoons, and freshwater ponds.
Canaveral lies in the meeting zone of the tropical and temperate climates, so it has a great assortment of species representing different biomes. It has over 1,000 species of plants. Among its permanent or seasonal residents are at least 300 species of birds, including migratory waterfowl, warblers, and endangered species such as bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. Among the various animals one might encounter there are raccoons, whitetail deer, armadillos, alligators, rattlesnakes, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and even migratory right whales (which calve offshore in the spring).
Visitation is highest January through August, and people going there can enjoy ranger-led programs, picnicking, boating, canoeing, birdwatching, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, beachcombing, fishing, clamming, crabbing, and primitive camping (there is no lodging in the park). The park also offers the Turtle Mound historical site, a trail system, and two loop drives for auto touring.
Managing the seashore offers many challenges related to heavy use, occasional hurricanes, the need to coordinate with NASA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the routine difficulties of caring for a large and diverse collection of natural and cultural resources that includes 14 threatened or endangered species and the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the entire state of Florida.
Some of Canaveral’s managerial problems are unique or highly unusual. When the Space Center’s launch schedule demands it, park officials must temporarily close the roads, beaches, and related areas at the southern end of the park. The seashore also has one of the few “clothing optional” beaches in the Park System (Gateway NRA’s Gunnison Beach is another), and there have been instances in which park beach-use rules and related security measures have been called into question.
New York’s Fire Island National Seashore was authorized in 1964, but not established until 1984. It was worth the wait. Fire Island is a 33-mile long coastal barrier gem that is loaded with natural and cultural attractions, including long sandy beaches, wild dunes, salt marshes, a unique holly grove, the Fire Island Light, and the historic William Floyd Estate (home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence).
Although located in the shadow of New York City, with over 14 million people living nearby, this seashore has a federally protected wilderness area and gets only about half a million visitors a year, including about 7,000 school children. Except for the Watch Hill and Sailors Haven units, which are accessible only by water, visitors can get to the park by car (though auto access is limited to the eastern and western ends), by private boat, or on ferries that cross Great South Bay to the island from several locations on the mainland.
Once on the island, visitors typically enjoy beach and water activities, tour historic sites, or just relax and re-energize. Among the favorite activities are sunbathing and swimming at lifeguarded beaches, boating and canoeing, surf fishing, camping, hunting, watching waterfowl on Great South Bay, hiking on trails leading from road-accessible parking areas at either end of the island, and visiting the Sunken Forest (a 300-year old holly grove nestled behind the dunes where it is shielded from the salt water).
Being on the mainland and near the Long Island Expressway (I-495), the William Floyd Estate is very accessible and its guided house tours and interpretive programs are very popular. Fire Island managers confront a wide array of managerial issues and concerns. Safeguarding the seven-mile long Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, the only federally protected wilderness in the state of New York, is a never ending battle against many threatening activities. Private property development and related activities are a perennial thorn in the Park Service’s side.
There are 17 separate communities on the island, primarily for summer recreation, and even routine activities like driving an ORV on the beach or spraying insecticides for mosquito control can be very environmentally harmful. Fragmentation is a problem because the park consists of more than a dozen separate parcels, including one on the mainland. Severe storms pummel the seashore, which is especially vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and other hurricane damage because of its exposed location and east-west orientation. Restrictions on the use of personal watercraft (PWCs), which were banned in the park in 2002, remain a lightning rod for criticism. Visitors are at risk of contracting Lyme disease, a serious illness transmitted by the bites of ticks that are common on the island.
Point Reyes National Seashore is situated on the Point Reyes Peninsula a short drive north of San Francisco. The park was established in 1962 to preserve threatened natural and cultural resources and to provide a high-quality recreational facility for tourists and the 6.5 million people living in the San Francisco Bay region. The rich biodiversity of this park make it an internationally significant natural treasure (Biosphere Reserve, 1988), and The Nature Conservancy ranks it one of the six most biologically significant areas in the United States.
Point Reyes is renowned for its great scenic interest and low-impact recreational activities related to the park’s long beaches, tall cliffs and headlands, lagoons and esteros, forested ridges, historic ranches, and watchable wildlife (including seabird colonies, seals, and migrating gray whales). The San Andreas Fault also runs through the park, which sits on the epicenter of the great 1906 earthquake that wreaked havoc on San Francisco.
The great popularity and complexity of Pt. Reyes poses some significant managerial issues and concerns. Point Reyes is considered one of the top 25 biological “hotspots” in the world, meaning that it is among the most threatened of all biologically rich terrestrial regions. Many of the park’s historic structures are in poor condition because historic preservation has taken a back seat to the protection of natural habitats and scenic resources. Park officials are concerned about the rapidly growing recreational use of Tomales Bay, since a dramatic increase in boating, fishing, kayaking, camping, wildlife watching, and related leisure activities there have made it increasingly difficult to preserve resource qualities.
Will Big Sur Become National Seashore #11?
More than 30 years have elapsed since the last National Seashore was established. During this time there have been a number of proposals to create additional seashores. By 2004 it had become clear that the Big Sur region of California’s Pacific Coast is a serious contender. Some significant obstacles must be overcome, but there is a good chance that the Park System’s 11th National Seashore will be created at Big Sur.