One of the first sights visitors to Caswell Beach see are signs identifying the town as a turtle sanctuary. At the town hall, the best-selling T-shirt features turtles. And during loggerhead hatching season, volunteer residents watch over turtle nests and help the newborns reach the sea.
But Mayor Harry Simmons is concerned the intense focus on the turtles will be to the detriment of human residents and tourists, who he says could lose access to the beach if environmentalists get their wish to designate it a "critical habitat" for the turtles.
Environmentalists and federal government officials say a "critical habitat" designation will only affect actions by federal agencies in the area, not those of state and local governments. But Simmons and others say they have actually seen local communities affected: They've seen beaches closed to people farther up the coast, in Dare County, to protect turtles and birds, and they fear the same will happen at their beaches.
"I do think the people here are over the top in support of the turtles to the point that they will take some efforts to not have lights on on the oceanside of oceanfront houses" to avoid disorienting the turtles, Simmons said. "Does it mean, though, they want to tear down the houses and move to Chadbourn? No. The human habitat is as important. And it's a good balance we have now."
The proposals that have upset Simmons and other leaders of beach communities in North Carolina come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates turtles on the beach, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees turtles in the water.
One proposal would declare 739 miles of beaches from Mississippi to North Carolina as critical habitats for loggerhead turtles, which the government lists as a threatened species. In North Carolina, the proposal covers 96 miles of beaches in Brunswick, Carteret, New Hanover, Onslow and Pender counties.
The Fisheries Service, meanwhile, has proposed that waters near the designated beaches, as well as additional waters off North Carolina and Florida and migratory corridors between those two states, also be designated as critical. The federal agencies are expected to have a final rule ready in July 2014.
Environmental groups filed petitions and lawsuits, prompting the federal agencies to consider the loggerhead turtle not as one global population but as nine distinct populations, including the one that lives in North Carolina, now considered part of a northwest Atlantic population. The groups then sought and got the "critical habitat" designation assigned to each loggerhead population.
Chuck Underwood, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said if the designation is also given to the beaches, it won't change much because the turtle is already regulated as a threatened species. Beach communities are concentrating on a part of the proposal that lists threats to the turtles, including recreational activities on the beach. They need to read further where the service lists all the actions taken to alleviate that threat, he said.
"Yes, beach driving is a threat. Yes, beach access is a threat," he said. "That is absolutely true. But the consideration of that impact is already part of the current permitting process."
But Greg "Rudi" Rudolph, shore protection manager for Carteret County, and other beach community leaders say they believe that if the beaches themselves are now designated as critical habitats, groups will keep suing until access is limited to them just as it is in Dare County.
"If you talk to the FWS, you're going to hear, 'This is nothing,'" Rudolph said. But if the federal agencies don't change the way the beaches are managed, the same groups that sued for the critical habitat will then sue for more protections, he said.
Underwood didn't dispute that possibility. "We heard some concerns that third parties might use critical habitat as another argument in litigation," he said. "That would be up to those third parties."
The Carteret County Board of Commissioners in August filed a notice of intent to sue if beaches there are designated as critical habitats. Other beach communities have approved resolutions against the designation, and North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources has filed a public comment, asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to, among other things, clarify the potential effects of the designation.
"We can readily foresee increased planning, permitting, construction and monitoring costs - both monetary, and in time - for projects that are already subject to significant regulatory reviews and permit conditions," department officials wrote.
While much of the focus is on the land designation, fishermen are worried about additional restrictions in the water, said Britton Shackelford of Wanchese, president of N.C. Watermen United.
"Fishermen have been dealing with sea turtles for 10 years," he said, particularly regarding large-mesh gill-net fishing. "We've had the water-based issue of turtles. And now it's getting ready to cross into land."
The new proposed rules "are going to further exacerbate a very bad situation for fishermen now," he said.
Because the "critical habitat" designation requires federal agencies, but not private, state or local groups, to examine the effect of their actions on the turtle's environment, the beach communities don't need to worry so much, said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, a Chapel Hill-based advocacy group.
Since turtles have been protected for 40 years or so, the designation merely adds another layer of protection, she said.
"I think the big problem we have is misinformation," Weaver said. "There's a lot of concern about what this means. In reality, it is likely to have little to no impact on these local communities. North Carolina beach communities have a long history of sea turtle protections and having vibrant coastal economies. There's no reason that the 'critical habitat' designation should change that."
But local governments are as wary of the SELC as they are of the federal government, viewing the environmental group as one of several responsible for beach closures in Dare County and for blocking the state's preferred replacement for the Bonner Bridge, the only road link between Hatteras Island the mainland.
And the governments have their own public relations headaches: It's not easy to appear to be against protections for sea turtles along the North Carolina coast where people "have a strong affinity for those big brown eyes and flippers," Rudolph said. "Two-thirds of our restaurants seem to have turtle or tortuga (the Spanish word for turtle) in their name."