ASSATEAGUE — With anticipated climate change and the associated sea level rise, Assateague Island officials are taking a proactive approach to planning for the future of the barrier island with a wide variety of alternatives on the table.
Assateague National Seashore officials are currently working on a new General Management Plan (GMP) for the barrier island for the next few decades and are seeking the public’s help in a series of workshops in the coming weeks. The GMP will ultimately establish a vision for the National Seashore and provide broad guidance for its management for the next 15-25 years.
At this stage in the planning process, the National Parks Service has developed several preliminary management alternatives for protecting the national seashore’s resources while continuing to provide high quality recreational opportunities. Finding a balance between allowing nature to take its course and protecting the amenities that make Assateague so popular for the millions of visitors attracted to it each year is at the heart of the GMP endeavor.
“Barrier islands such as Assateague will be especially vulnerable, and while major impacts are not expected in the near future, now is the time to set the stage so that future managers have options available when the conditions do change,” said Assateague National Seashore Superintendent Trish Kicklighter this week.
As part of the preliminary process in developing a new GMP for Assateague, park officials last summer collected input from various stakeholders on what the management effort should be in the future. Those comments were used in crafting several alternatives now on the table and the public will have the opportunity to participate in the process again with a series of workshops scheduled around the area in the next two weeks.
“Mindful of the input we received, the planning team has crafted several preliminary management alternatives or options for how we will go about protecting the seashore’s resources while continuing to provide recreational opportunities,” she said. “In crafting the alternatives, we chose to consider climate change and sea level rise as key factors influencing the future of the seashore.”
The first alternative on the table would simply be a continuation of the current management strategy for the barrier island. Under the proposed Alternative 1, the National Parks Service “would continue to manage seashore resources and visitor use as it does today with no major changes in direction.”
The second alternative would concentrate traditional beach recreation areas and the man-made amenities in certain areas while allowing nature to take its course in other parts of the barrier island.
“Most visitors to the seashore would enjoy traditional beach recreation concentrated within a high-density developed visitor area accessible by private vehicle,” the plan reads.
The third alternative is essentially a hybrid of the first two and would adapt the visitor recreational areas to the changes to the barrier island caused by natural processes such as sea level rise, storms and climate change.
“Over time, the effects of natural coastal processes, climate change and sea level rise are expected to become the dominant force shaping the character of the Maryland developed visitor area,” the plan reads. “To minimize or avoid the damaging effects of natural coastal processes, the visitor use infrastructure would evolve to more sustainable designs and likely shift to new, more stable locations.”
The final alternative on the table, and perhaps the most drastic, would allow the natural evolution of the barrier island without interference and subject to the full effects of natural coastal processes such as climate change and sea level rise.
“Future breaches or other island changes throughout the Maryland portion of the seashore would be allowed to evolve naturally,” the plan reads. “Existing visitor use facilities and infrastructure would remain in the Maryland developed visitor area until such time as they are lost or damaged by coastal processes or become obsolete.”
In essence, the existing infrastructure would be allowed to degrade as the coastal processes take their course.
“Minimal future investments would be made on the Maryland portion of the island, limited to the development of sustainable, low impact day-use facilities and primitive camping infrastructure,” the plan reads. “Over time, visitor use would shift to primarily day use activities in a more primitive island setting.”
Officials are seeking the public’s help in crafting and approving a new GMP for the future of the barrier island with a series of workshops. The first will be held on Aug. 16 at Wor-Wic Community College from 4:30-7:30 p.m. The second will be held on Aug. 17 at the Marine Science Consortium on Wallops Island from 4:30-7:30 p.m., while the final workshop will be held at the Ocean Pines Library on Aug. 18 from 6-9 p.m.
“We’re really hoping that folks will come out and participate in the workshops,” said Kicklighter. “As superintendent of Assateague, I look forward to working together in planning the future of the seashore.”