State agencies are negotiating with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service for more involvement in new protections for sea turtles, Coastal Resources Commission members said Thursday.
The federal agency in April designated 68 miles of North Carolina coastline as critical habitat for endangered loggerhead sea turtles. State officials were not involved in the process – most heard about it later, via news reports - and had concerns about how it could affect tourism and conservation efforts, among other things.
“This proposal has generated significant concerns among coastal communities over what it means in terms of additional rules, procedures and costs for coastal projects,” said Braxton Davis, director of the state Division of Coastal Management. “We were concerned that the designation may unfairly impact beach and inlet management acts in particular.”
Both John Skvarla, head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Bob Emory, CRC chairman, sent letters to the federal agency that outlined the state’s concerns and requested opportunities to give further input.
Specifically, officials asked Fish and Wildlife agents to prepare an economic analysis of potential impacts to coastal communities, provide additional information on the data used for the designation and to participate in a meeting with local agencies and stakeholders.
The state also asked that the agency submit a federal consistency determination, a process that would spark a formal public and agency review process and ensure that any new regulations don’t contradict existing state rules.
The letters were two of more than 19,000 comments received as part of the ruling’s public comment period.
Coastal management officials followed up on those requests Wednesday in a conference call with Fish and Wildlife representatives, who said they would release the economic analysis and were open to the requested multi-agency meeting.
But the federal agency declined to initiate the consistency determination. According to Davis, Fish and Wildlife officials said it was unnecessary to start that process until a specific coastal project is up for debate. Until then, there’s no action to govern.
That response is problematic, Davis said, as it could set a dangerous precedent for future actions.
“They also argue that the rule change is procedural, and there’s no specific standards or recommendations coming along at this time,” Davis said. “We respect the work that they do and I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t, but we’re concerned about the precedent here.”
Fish and Wildlife Services will hold a series of public hearings on the matter at several locations throughout Southeastern North Carolina, but the timetable for those meetings won’t be announced until August.
The economic analysis of the critical habitat should be released before those meetings, Davis said.