A storm is brewing off Cape Hatteras, which is no surprise. The perilous, shifting sands of North Carolina's Outer Banks have seen nature at her cruelest for thousands of years.
But this time it's a federal storm that has veteran gale watchers puzzled.
Tossing in the wind is an Army Corps of Engineers proposal, 10 years in the making, to build two huge jetties out into the sea at Oregon Inlet. The aim of the $80 million project is to stabilize the channel at the inlet, which seagoing fishing boats use to get to and from port at Wanchese.
"It's a standoff, that's what it is," said Dan McDonald, a retired Corps of Engineers colonel now working for the state trying to shepherd the proposal through. "What we have is a standoff between lawyers. It could go on and on until the costs finally outweigh the benefits and then there will be no project."
The Corps is ready to start dumping huge chunks of rubble into the sea in the spring. The jetty it plans on the south side of the inlet would extend almost a mile into the ocean; the north leg would be 8,900 feet in all, stretching 3,000 feet out to sea a few miles south of the popular resort at Nag's Head.
Congress has authorized about $13 million for work to get under way.
But now the Interior Department, which has custody of the land on which the giant jetties would be anchored and where the corps machinery would have to rumble and roar, says no.
On Sept. 9, Interior notified the corps that it would not issue the necessary permits for work to begin. "The department determined that it lacks authority to grant permits, easements or rights of way either on the north side (in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore) or south (on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge)," according to Park Supt. Bill Harris.
The reason, said Harris, is that "the project is incompatible with management programs and the purpose of the park and the refuge."
For justification he cited the original charter of the Hatteras National Seashore, which says that except for certain areas deemed suitable for recreation, the park "shall be permanently reserved as a primitive wilderness."
Interior evidently has determined that mile-plus jetties built of stones up to 30 tons apiece are not primitive wilderness. It has support from the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association, which fears the jetties would interrupt normal fish migrations, and from Outer Banks people who worry that the government is once again tackling something too big to handle.
Harris shares that last view.
"The real basic problem is that a natural inlet migrates south," he said. Since the highway bridge was built over Oregon Inlet in 1963, for example, the natural channel has drifted a quarter-mile south. The corps has been dredging the old channel almost constantly to keep it open for the fishing fleet. Every year fishing boats go aground anyway, and sometimes property and lives are lost.
The question, as far as Harris and others are concerned, is whether it makes sense to try to control the elements. "We've spent over $20 million trying to stabilize the shoreline of the park since 1958 and it continues to recede," said Harris. "We built fences (to create dunes) until there's no place left to build fences anymore. We're finally coming to realize that you can't fight nature."
This is not the first time that the Corps of Engineers and Interior have butted heads over the way a resource should be used. But according to Jim Bates, head of eastern planning management for the Corps, "it is a rare instance where they've slowed things down by not providing the land."
Bates said the corps believes congressional intent is clear. "The feeling of our counsel is that Congress knew the (use of Interior Department) land was needed when it authorized construction, thereby indicating that that would be in the public interest," he said.
"I don't know that we're at an impasse. We haven't sat down with them to see if we can work something out," he added. Bates said seeking a compromise would be the corps' first step. "We don't really have a second step yet," he said.
Meantime the state is busy spending $8 million on a new seafood industrial park at Wanchese whose potential "cannot be achieved without the jetties," according to McDonald.
Can Interior, with its vision of empty, untrammeled stretches of sand, stand up to big business, the Corps and the state?
"I'm not worried about it going down the tubes," said McDonald. "But now that it's in the hands of the lawyers, I'm worried about interminable delays." With construction costs skyrocketing, that could amount to the same thing.