Beach communities and environmentalists along the North Carolina coast are pushing back against a proposal that would allow the U.S. National Park Service to use dredging material to fight erosion on the pristine Shackleford Banks, where wild horses roam and no humans live.

The proposal, part of what is called a 20-year Dredge Material Management Plan, has created an odd coalition of towns that want the material from Beaufort Inlet to go to their beaches, not the Shackleford Banks, and environmentalists who want to protect Shackleford Banks from more human interference.

The Park Service manages Shackleford Banks, the southern-most­ barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore, as a wilderness area, although it does not have the designation from Congress.

The erosion at Shackleford Banks is part of the natural expansion and contraction of inlets and a natural reaction to the rise of the sea level, said Orrin H. Pilkey, a geology professor emeritus at Duke University. And in the past, the Park Service has stuck to its guns about letting nature take its course, he said.

“I oppose it because I’m so strongly in favor of the Park Service’s ‘let nature rip’ policy,” he said. “And what I fear, and what others like myself fear, is that the Park Service is starting to waffle a little bit on this. I understand why. They’re always under pressure to do something” about erosion.

Inlets expand and contract over time, Pilkey said, and Beaufort Inlet is expanding right now. “Shackleford Banks is doing what nature intended it to do,” he said.

More than 100 horses roam Shackleford Banks, but humans have not lived there since the turn of the 20th century, plenty of time for evidence of their presence to disappear. Visitors can walk its nine miles of deserted beach and see maritime forests but no roads or homes. It is that sort of pristine environment that people such as Pilkey fear will be lost if the Army Corps of Engineers is allowed to pipe in sand.

The sand that some view as an unwanted interloper on Shackleford is a valuable commodity for places such as the town of Atlantic Beach, where the mayor says it protects from storms about $2 billion in oceanfront investment.

But the plan only gives the Park Service the option of using the dredge material at Shackleford Banks; it does not require it to do so, said Pat Kenney, superintendent of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. “If we say no to sand now, in the next 20 years, we would not be considered for sand,” Kenney said. “One of the critical things the Park Service is trying to do is protect the option to accept sand.”

That is a new stance for the agency, which the plan says requested the Army Corps to include dumping of dredged material on Shackleford Banks in 2010 after refusing the sand in the past because it wasn’t considered consistent with Park Service’s management policies.

The Park Service has never used dredge sand on a wilderness area or one that is proposed for a wilderness designation, such as Shackleford, an agency spokesman said. It has no proposals to use dredge sand in any such areas other than Shackleford, he said.

The Army Corps has dumped sand at other national parks while working with other federal or state entities.

That includes placing sand on the sound side shore of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to protect historic structures in 2006 and at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to fill a breach caused by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. It intends to have a final plan for Beaufort Inlet sand by spring 2015.

Under the plan proposed by the Army Corps, 57 percent of the sand would go to Bogue Banks, the location of Atlantic Beach. The Park Service has asked for 43 percent of the sand for Shackle­ford, the same percentages as the erosion, the plan says. Atlantic Beach Mayor Trace Cooper wants the sand to continue to be dumped on the shoreline of his town and at Fort Macon State Park, as it is now, especially since the plan is the result of a lawsuit that Carteret County filed several years ago.

In addition to protecting oceanfront investment, the sand also protects the park and provides wide beaches for visitors, Cooper said. If Bogue Banks received only 57 percent of the dredged sand, it would have to find money and sand from other sources.

“This whole Dredge Material Management Plan is the result of the lawsuit against the Corps, in which the Corps has admitted that their dredging affects the beaches of Atlantic Beach,” Bogue said. “And their renourishment efforts along Atlantic Beach are there to mitigate the harm they have caused. We just want them to do what they said they were going to do.”

The county brought legal action in 2007, said Gregory “Rudi” Rudolph, shore protection manager for Carteret County. The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in 2008, Rudolph said, that required the Army Corps to codify its intention to dump dredged material at Fort Macon State Park and Atlantic Beach. That happened in 2010-11, when the Bogue Banks got about 1 million cubic yards of sand as part of interim plan, Cooper and Rudolph said. Now, however, the Park Service wants to claim some of that sand as its own.

“I don’t want to say the process has been hijacked, but it’s pretty darn close,” Rudolph said.

— Associated Press