Glen W. Bond Jr., director of the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, is decidedly unhappy this morning. He has just informed yet another North Carolina property owner that he cannot use the refuge beach as a shortcut to Virginia Beach and he has been assured, in turn, that the man is going to complain to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
"He said he'd call Helms' office at 9:15," Bond laments. "I don't know why they pick on me. I'm the low man on the totem pole, I'm not calling the shots. When they say 'Jump' I say 'How high?' " Nonetheless, at 9:16 the telephone rings and Bond winces.
"It's Sen. Helms' office," says Bond's secretary, "for you."
All the stomach-churning calls Bond gets nowadays -- and they come from state and local officials, too -- are caused by the 10-year-old effort of his bosses at the Interior Department to prohibit vehicular traffic on the 4 1/2 miles of refuge beachfront.
Their reasoning is straightforward enough. The four-wheel- drive trucks and Jeeps of the citizenry, they maintain, not only disturb the tens of thousands of migrating birds who rest and winter here just a few miles north of the North Carolina border, but also pose threats to the dunes that protect the marshes beyond as well as indiginous beach wildlife such as sand crabs.
Unfortunately, this spectacular stretch of government-owned sand just also happens to lie between hundreds of owners of isolated North Carolina beach property on the famed Outer Banks and Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
And not one of the property owners is happy about that.
Virtually all are outraged that the federal government would even consider restricting their beach access, much less actually implement regulations. Yet, Interior, which first began restricting refuge beach travel in 1972 and successfully withstood a federal court challenge to that authority in 1975, has been steadily tightening its grip on the beach.
Today, the North Carolina landowners must comply with Interior restrictions that limit or prohibit outright their access to the refuge beach. Depending on whether they qualify as residents -- and thereby are entitled to two round-trip beach drives a day -- or simply as owners of improved property, a status that permits them 30 weekend visits a year, all have to have permission to use the beach. Only 39 families now have daily access rights.
For residents like Sarah and Ralph Russell, who built a home on the isolated strand but moved in too late to qualify as residents, the restrictions can be particularly troublesome. Russell is one of several North Carolina beach residents who work in the Norfolk area yet are forbidden to travel the beaches. Just to get to work, he and others must negotiate three hours of Carolina roads or cross shallow Currituck Sound by small boat -- in the process risking frostbite in winter and mudflats year round, his wife says.
All of them could save up to two hours one way were they permitted to drive on the beach, she says.
Others complain that the restrictions tend to deny them ready access to necessities such as medical facilities. Virginia Beach General Hospital, the closest facility is but 25 miles away by beach, but the nearest Carolina hospital is 85 miles away.
The biggest hardship may be experienced by the handful of longtime residents, some of whose families have lived in the area for hundreds of years. To them, the restrictions threaten an end to their longstanding cultural, social and emotional ties with Virginia. Thanks to the beach, they have always been geographically "closer" to it than to North Carolina.
"I went to elementary school, junior high school, and high school in Virginia Beach," says Ernest Bowden, 57, who was raised three miles from where he lives in Carova Beach, south of the Virginia border. "There weren't any schools here. The school bus drove right along the beach -- though it seems to me I remember doing a lot more pushing and pulling than riding."
Of all those residents in opposition, Bowden has gone the furthest in his effort to demonstrate his contention that he has a right to drive the beach whenever he wants. Earlier this summer, a few weeks after a disagreement about when he must notify Bond about late-night travel on the beach, Bowden was charged by Fish and Wildlife officials with 145 different violations of traffic restrictions. He was convicted in federal court on 30 of those charges and sentenced to 110 days in jail with all but 10 days suspended. He has appealed the conviction.
Bowden, a cattle farmer and contractor whose business, he says, is mostly in Virginia Beach, is reduced to having his 78-year-old father, who lives nearby, shuttle him between home and Virginia because Bond, under orders from his superiors, has not renewed Bowden's revoked beach access permit.
"We're not gonna harm this beach or refuge, us least of all. We live here," says Bowden as his father wheels him down the hard-packed sand, dodging waves ("They'd rust it right out, they would.") and gray stumps of live oak washed by the tides.
"It's them that did all the changes. The federal government's the one that put up the sand fences that built the dunes," he says. "We didn't have no beach grass before. The ocean just washed up and over the beach into Back Bay and Currituck Sound. This entire area was covered with shell."
Bond does not debate that issue. "There's nothing natural about Back Bay Refuge, nothing natural about it at all," he says. "To provide a wintering habitat for migrating waterfowl, we had to do a lot of things, build impoundments, get greens growing to hold the dunes. Otherwise, there'd be no marshes."
But he disagrees vociferously with Bowden's contention that no one should be able to regulate his comings and goings. "They look at it as a right," says Bond. "But it's not a right. It's a privilege . . . . I say, where there's a question, err on the side of wildlife. Particularly on a wildlife refuge."
When it comes to trying to obtain permission to drive the beach, however, Bond, in his five years as refuge director, has learned the hard way that both the meek and the powerful are not averse to using political influence -- or any other aid -- if they think it will help.
Last year, for instance, Virginia Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), who owned beach property south of the border, used his legislative identification card five times to drive through the refuge. Barry also applied for a refuge permit, claiming he was a full-time North Carolina resident. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the application and Barry later sold his property.
Still another Virginian with property south of the border has managed to have himself hired as an employe of one of five commercial beach fishing operations permitted on the beach, thereby entitling him to drive "to and from work," says Bond.
More conventional tactics have not been ignored, either, including the time-honored practice of powerful congressmen to change Interior regulations through legislative action. Bond said that, in one instance, Sen. Helms successfully introduced a measure that extended the date by which individuals had to have become full-time residents of the area in order to qualify for a permit to drive the beach.
And just this summer, Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) introduced a bill that would allow virtually all homeowners in the area to drive across the refuge beaches.
"There's all kinds of ways that people try to sneak around these things," says Bond. "And it's all for their own personal -- well, I told you I wouldn't give my personal opinion on these things, so I won't."
These and other experiences have not made the task of policing the beach a particularly pleasant one for either Bond or Interior. As a result, Interior is discussing with Virginia officials the possibility of their taking over the policing responsibilities as part of a land swap that could allow Virginia to build a road through the refuge to the Carolina border, albeit with restrictions as to how and by whom it could be used.
To Bond and the property owners, that would be just fine.
"I'd be out of the traffic business and back protecting birds," says Bond. "And they wouldn't have me bugging them anymore."