By Ben Swenson
Frank Stick’s proposal was just as poetic as it was radical: “From the sportsman’s standpoint, no section could be more desirable,” he wrote of the Outer Banks in a 1933 editorial in Elizabeth City’s The Independent. “(A)nd for the seeker of rest and the opportunity to relax body and soul under the ennobling spell of the sea or in the peaceful solitude of sun-kissed sounds, I do not know where could be found a territory comparable to it.”
Stick was aiming big. He envisioned a vast national park encompassing a hundred miles of ocean shoreline, a project, he wrote, “so monumental … and far reaching in its beneficent effect upon the people of the entire nation, that it must appeal to the imagination of every individual.”
It took two decades for that revolutionary idea – a coastal national park belonging to the American people – to bear fruit. But once it did, Cape Hatteras National Seashore became the country’s first guardian of unspoiled shoreline, an oasis where the natural world intersects with the human desire to be there.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, or CAHA as it’s called, stretches some 70 miles along North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, from Ocracoke Island in the south to Bodie Island in the north. The National Park Service administers the seashore, comprised of more than 30,000 protected acres, in conjunction with two other Outer Banks landmarks: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Wright Brothers National Memorial. Eight towns and three lighthouses – most notable among them Cape Hatteras, which celebrated the 150 anniversary of its first lighting in December – lay along the national seashore’s expanse.
The notion of protecting beachfront had little precedent when Stick first floated the idea in the 1930s. Americans had a robust National Park Service by then, but only once had lawmakers halfheartedly protected waterfront – limiting logging along certain lakes and streams in Minnesota in 1930.
Stick was foremost among a cast of influencers who ushered the national seashore from dream to reality, according to Dave Hallac, park superintendent. An avid outdoorsman and commercial artist, Stick moved to the Outer Banks as he neared an early retirement, drawn by the abundance of waterfowl and other wildlife. He soon became involved in local real estate development and was aware of the perils of rapid growth.
“His love of conservation grew out of preserving natural beauty and the immensity and glory he saw in natural world,” says Samantha Crisp, director of the Outer Banks History Center. “He was good about setting aside a chunk of land to develop and a chunk of land to preserve.”
Stick’s proposal found warm reception; however, the lean years of the Great Depression tempered the ebb and flow of policymaking. But the national crisis turned out to be a boon, too. The federal government, using the alphabet soup of agencies created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, supported projects that employed Americans. And the Outer Banks had shovel-ready work.
By 1936, transient workers and young men with the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps began replacing sand dunes that had been lost to erosion resulting from overgrazing. The men built fences just beyond the reach of the ocean waves. These fences caught sand, and once enough had accumulated, grasses were planted to hold the dunes in place.
All along, Stick was hard at work on the minutiae that would make his dream come true. He enlisted supporters and served on a commission created to explore land acquisition for a possible national seashore. He finessed a land donation of more than 1,000 acres at Cape Hatteras, which the state of North Carolina turned into a state park.
Officials with the federal government and the National Park Service took notice. The agency was already interested in the nearby sites where the Wright Brothers first launched powered flight and Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island, where Englishmen first attempted settlement in the New World. The park service controlled the dune construction projects and was increasingly pursuing the idea of a seashore park.
In 1937, Congress passed legislation that allowed for the creation of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but the fight to make the park a reality was far from finished. Backers had to acquire land from numerous landowners, a complicated web of transactions. Some were willing to donate their property, while others sought fair market value, or trickier still, were unwilling to sell at all.
As the drums of World War II beat half a world away, land acquisition efforts continued, but a lot of the national energy was naturally focused overseas. Funding was also a perennial concern. Conrad Wirth, a senior-level National Park Service official, shepherded a gift from philanthropist Paul Mellon and matching funds from the state of North Carolina, securing the $1.25 million needed to finally acquire all the land.
In January 1953, National Park Service officials cut the ribbon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Frank Stick died in 1966 and his son, David Stick, carried his father’s mantle, always advocating on behalf of the national seashore and, as an Outer Banks politician, historian, businessman and philanthropist, finding the right balance between development and conservation. David Stick’s donation of his library and papers led to the creation of the Outer Banks History Center in the 1980s.
“Between the two of them, they had a hand in almost everything here,” says Crisp.
Their concern for the land, epitomized by Cape Hatteras National Seashore, is an enduring legacy on the Outer Banks. “This is an interesting place to live and there are strong opinions on either side of political spectrum,” says Crisp. “But there’s one thing everyone agrees on, and that’s environmental protections for the Outer Banks and the beaches.”
For nearly seven decades, the primitive character of this stretch of seashore has been preserved and the plants and animals that call the barrier islands home have been protected, while compatible recreation within the natural environment has also been permitted.
That’s sometimes a challenge, according to Hallac. “We are trying to manage for today’s generation and future generations a highly dynamic sandbar, and doing that with modern conveniences, paved roads and villages in between,” he says. “Barrier islands are living, breathing, changing and moving.”
But that’s what’s wonderful about Cape Hatteras National Seashore, says Hallac, both for the park service stewards, and for travelers. “Every time you go there it looks different and that’s one of the things that’s beautiful about the seashore. Visitors come expecting change.”
And come they do, by the millions. June 2020 saw the second-highest attendance for the month on record, according to Hallac – nearly 400,000 visitors that month alone.
Such an influx of people wanting to experience a natural shoreline brings its own set of challenges, especially when different groups have competing priorities. In the early 2000s, for instance, off-road vehicle management within the national seashore’s boundaries became a point of contention.
The park service and other advocates of wildlife conservation sought to address growing numbers of off-road vehicles driving on the beach, which negatively affected populations of seabirds and turtles. After years of back-and-forth, with defenders of off-road access warning of economic disaster, the park service issued guidelines that called for permitting and restrictions on locations and time of day for beach driving.
Hallac says that being as least-restrictive as possible, along with aggressive visitor education campaigns, has proven time and again to be the key to consonance.
Brooke Skakle has been Outer Banks resident for most of her life and was a Hatteras Island lifeguard for 10 consecutive seasons. She’s now administrator of the Facebook page Friends of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and says that a lot of things draw people to these beaches – the untamed scenery, the abundant recreational opportunities, and the wide-openness of a thin ribbon of land at the edge of an ocean.
A big part of what makes Cape Hatteras National Seashore meaningful, she says, is the freedom of escape. “Here people appreciate that we’re not like the northern beaches,” she says, meaning not only the more densely developed Kitty Hawk area. “A lot of people come here from Jersey Shore beaches where they had to pay to go to the beach, only to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other beachgoers.”
The national seashore, says Skakle, is a wild and thriving sanctuary that simultaneously nurtures the soul of the natural world and of humanity. Perhaps its most striking attribute is its ability to transport people to a time and place that are rare anymore, a native landscape that’s a window to the past when humans weren’t so heavy-handed and nature tamed people instead of the other way around.
“Coming to this seashore,” says Skakle, “is like stepping back in time.”