Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Victory!

by Orrin Pilkey,
James B. Duke Professor of Earth Sciences at Duke University

MAKING WAVES, June/July 1999

     The moving of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a profound victory for the Surfrider Foundation and a number of other organizations and individuals that fought long and hard for this moment. It is also a great victory for the "retreat" alternative of beach management. As far back as 1982, opponents claimed that North Carolina would be the "laughing stock of the coast" if we moved the lighthouse. On the contrary, we're looking good and riding high!
     Moving the lighthouse provides a lesson for coastal scientists in particular. There was virtually unanimous agreement among the local marine science community that the lighthouse would fall in the sea if it was not moved. Although some local scientists felt that it should be allowed to fall into the sea, none disagreed that it had to be moved to be saved. In fact, a joint panel of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering came to the same conclusion. Still, the opposition characterized the scientific opposition as "environmental extremists" and, at least in the media, the scientific view seemed to have been swept from the table. Opponents found a local retired scientist and engineer who claimed the move couldn't be done. It was most disconcerting to us, especially since the issue seemed straightforward and non-political.
     Of course no issue at the beach is straightforward. Updrift motel owners correctly assumed that their motels would soon be in danger because without the lighthouse no one will maintain the groins that have held the sea at bay in front of the lighthouse. The local commissioners in Dare County probably opposed moving the lighthouse because they didn't want the erosion problem to receive national attention. The most effective oppponent was Hugh Morton, a prominent North Carolina politico and entrepreneur who organized the Save the Lighthouse campaign, collected at least a half million dollars from the state's school children and spent much of it throwing useless plastic seaweed into the sea in front of the lighthouse (while claiming success).
     In hindsight, the only lesson I can draw is that the coastal scientists and the environmental groups may have waited a little too long to join the battle. The "Keep the Lighthouse in Place" movement was already a juggernaut rolling down hill when we showed up. I also think the scientific view might have had more credibility if we had taken the time to have talks at local civic clubs and schools on the Outer Banks.
     But fortunately the park service was listening, especially to the National Academy report. They proceeded with the decision to move the lighthouse with courage and confidence.

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