05/10/2012 06:11 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

National Parks: Rational Access

Two time-worn sayings come to mind in relation to merchants' complaints that the National Park Service is unfairly reducing public access to popular destinations in its system. The sayings are: do not "kill the goose that lays the golden egg" nor "lose the forest for the trees".

The destinations at issue are the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and the Biscayne Bay National Park off the coast of Miami.

National Park Service officials are determined to avoid such sorry outcomes for Hatteras and Biscayne from commercial miscalculation. To achieve this goal, the Service is restricting certain human activities where lax enforcement has resulted in damage to especially fragile portions of the two parks' ecosystems.

Conflicts have arisen because local business people tend to view Hatteras and Biscayne foremost as sources of income and only secondarily as national park units with all of the stringent environmental protections that the law demands.

Commercial interests' self-serving priorities are those of a distinct minority. The overwhelming majority of the public, who have as much proprietary interest in the national parks as those residing adjacent to the sanctuaries, embrace the aforementioned priorities directly in reverse. It is also a values alignment that the law obligates the Park Service to follow. The Enabling Act establishing the National Park System requires that the Park Service's first order of business is to provide for enjoyment of park natural resources "in such manner and in such means that they will be left unimpaired for future generations." Recreation is important, but clearly not at the expense of unique natural resources set aside for posterity and all Americans.

With that principle in mind, the Park Service has designated roughly one-third of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's 67 mile stretch of beach permanently closed to off-road vehicles (not to pedestrian traffic mind you) in order to protect nesting endangered birds and sea turtles. It should also be noted that only 10 percent of those visiting Hatteras even drive off-road vehicles on the Atlantic coast beach.

As for the 70,000 acre Biscayne Bay Park, the Park Service has proposed to make 10,000 acres a marine reserve off-limits to fishing in order to give a badly degraded coral reef and the fish species spawned there an opportunity to recover from excessive human activity.

Local merchants have protested that these moves damage business by closing off areas popular with fishermen, even though a depressed economy and high gas prices might well explain any recent visitor decline.

If the businesspeople were to get their way, the economic losses from the subsequent environmental degradation would eventually be greater than any suffered from access restrictions.

Undaunted, members of Congress from the two districts have dutifully rallied around a bill to overrule the Park Service and modify its decisions. Hopefully, the legislation will be blocked by environmentally sensitive federal lawmakers defending the Park Service formula that allows for the maximum recreational use without jeopardizing natural resource preservation.

The reality is that merchants operating next to national parks face a tradeoff. They benefit greatly from their proximity to a prime tourist attraction, but are most impacted economically by restrictions on park recreational use in the name of conservation. If they cannot successfully integrate such a tradeoff into their business plans, they should consider either another line of work or a different place to set up shop.