Assateague Island Plans Worry Birding Community

ASSATEAGUE — Assateague Island officials this week attempted to allay concerns raised by the birding community and conservationists over a proposed plan to relocate two parking areas on the barrier island and the associated clearing of some trees and vegetation considered critical habitat for migratory birds.
Following Hurricane Sandy last fall, many of the man-made structures utilized to enhance the visitor experience on Assateague were damaged or destroyed, prompting National Park Service officials to plan for their long-term sustainability. The resulting new plan is to move structures and parking areas, for example, when they are damaged or destroyed by storms in the future out of shoreline areas and harm’s way to the extent possible.
One of the first examples of the new initiative is a proposed plan to move two parking lot areas at South Ocean Beach and the bayside picnic area damaged by Sandy to an area further from the shoreline and less prone to storm damage. The proposal calls for clearing some vegetated areas to accomplish the relocation, which has the birding community calling foul because of concerns about the impacts on migratory bird habitat. In an open letter to Maryland birders and conservationists, local resident Mark Hoffman called on his colleagues to voice their concerns over the proposed parking lot relocation plan during the public comment period that expired this week.
“Collectively, we know the Bayside Point area of Assateague Island National Seashore to be an incredible place to witness bird migration,” the letter reads. “Over the course of a season, tens of thousands migrant birds pass by the point with a large percentage stopping in the tiny area of woodland scrub between the existing parking areas and the camping loops.”
Hoffman’s letter suggests the parking lot relocation project will adversely impact a large area of essential habitat for migratory birds.
“The National Park Service plans to destroy or fragment at least 50 percent of this small habitat island in a misguided effort to expand the parking lot and double the visitor infrastructure at the point,” the letter reads. “The birds need our help. The Park Service has completed their Environmental Assessment and this conclusion is the impact to migratory bird habitat is minimal and their preferred alternative is to cut down the trees and clear the vegetation for more parking. Years of data collected by the Maryland birding community does not support this outcome.”
The letter calls for a reduction in the parking areas on the island, not a relocation and certainly not an expansion.
“An alternative that would be more appropriate to the stated goals of the plan and the mission of the National Park Service would be a reduction in the size of the existing parking lot to address sustainability concerns, while preserving this important stopover habitat for migratory birds, developing strategies for protecting it from further destruction and creating an interpretive program to educate the public about its significance.”
However, Assateague officials this week said the project is an example of good planning under the new management program.
“It’s a pretty straightforward project,” said Chief of Resource Management Bill Hulslander. “Under our new management plan, as facilities get damaged by storms such as Sandy, we ask ourselves first, is the facility necessary, and if so, could it moved to an area further from the shoreline. We did that. We went through that process and confirmed this was a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.”
Hulslander downplayed the perceived scope of the relocation project and its impact on migratory bird habitat.
“About 1.2 acres will be cleared as a result of this project, which is not a lot in our opinion,” he said. “There are about 40 acres of this habitat in the same area and over 1,200 acres of it island-wide.”
The project was proposed after careful consultation with state and federal agencies and the completion of a complex Environmental Assessment, which takes into consideration all potential impacts on the barrier island’s natural resources.
“We consulted with the Maryland DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and everyone was in agreement on this,” he said. “We’re only adding less than a dozen parking spaces, but we lost several spots after Sandy.”
Hulslander said much of the cleared area will likely be replaced.
“We’ll likely have to mitigate some of the impacts,” he said. “We will probably have to do some re-vegetation.”
Hulslander pointed out the new parking areas will be a considerable upgrade from an environmental standpoint over the existing lots.
“One of the aspects of this that seems to get overlooked is that we’re going to replace the new parking areas with a clay and clamshell surface,” he said. “We’re doing away with a lot of impervious surface and we’re trying to eliminate asphalt going into the coastal bays.”
Hulslander said there were more than a few public comments on the potential habitat impacts and acknowledged the concerns of the birding community.
“The agency will make a decision within the month and it’s targeted for construction early next year,” he said.

3 comments on “Assateague Island Plans Worry Birding Community

  1. You are missing a subtle but critical point. The amount of temporary disturbance during construction, and permanent habitat loss (about 2 acres) at the proposed Bayside lot is not the driving issue here. The specific location proposed for the new parking area is BAD due to the pattern migratory birds have at the site, which causes them to habitually end up at the patch of brush at the western end of Bayside peninsula. And why it is the best place on the entire island to observe birds in migration season. Another important issue, is the fact that NPS did not look at any viable alternatives other than not doing anything. This a requirement under NEPA, and other alternatives may save NPS (and you and I) money, as well as accomplish their stated goal. I requested the NPS to evaluate other viable alternatives and look forward to their response.

  2. While I was happy to see that this important issue got media coverage, I am disappointed by the slant you have taken with this article. I do not believe that it fairly represents both sides of the issue. While quoting Mark Hoffman’s letter, you identify him as a “local resident”. Perhaps the readers should know that Mr. Hoffman is not just some guy who trots around Assateague looking for birds. He is an Assistant Secretary at Maryland Department of Natural Resources. According to the DNR web site, Mr. Hoffman’s credentials are as follows: An expert in administration and finance, Mark has more than 28 years experience in the field. Mark has worked at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources since 1985, serving initially as a Chief of Data Processing, and later as Associate Director of Administration for the Wildlife and Heritage Service. In 2007, he was promoted to Director of Finance and Administrative Services for all of DNR. Mark holds a Masters of Science Degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Florida, and a Bachelors Degree in Biological Sciences from Cornell University.

    My point is that Mr. Hoffman has as much experience and expertise to comment on this issue as anyone. Failing to give him proper accreditation, the article weighs heavily on the side of the Environmental Assessment. In other words, the article reads as if there is some guy who likes to watch birds who complained about this new parking lot, but don’t worry because there was an assessment done which says it’s just fine.

    The article also fails to mention that Mr. Hoffman is not the only one expressing concern. You say that there have been “more than a few” comments which is a gross understatement. There have been many, many comments from conservationists, citizens who use the park on a regular basis, birders who have spent years tracking the data on migrants through this very area, environmental groups, etc. Perhaps The Dispatch could have asked Mr. Hulslander to provide an actual list of the comments received.

    Assateague is a National Park that’s mission is to “preserve unimpaired the NATURAL and cultural resources.” Tearing down most of this particular habitat for parking spaces is not serving that mission and it is not a wise use of funds. Ocean City is just around the corner and full of parking spaces. Let’s leave a little space for our precious wildlife. I hope The Dispatch continues to cover this story but in a more balanced and accurate manner.

  3. Over the years I have collected hundreds of hours worth of data at the Bayside Point. I can assure you that Bill Hulslander’s Environmental Assessment is flawed. The Bayside Point is a critical habitat essential to the survival of many migratory birds that funnel through the point on their way to their wintering grounds.

    Bayside Point is a special place. It is a forested narrow corridor to the mainland. Birds use it as a migration route as it offers not only food and shelter, but also an easy jump across water to continue their migration south.

    Bill Huslander is quoted as saying, “About 1.2 acres will be cleared as a result of this project, which is not a lot in our opinion,” he said. “There are about 40 acres of this habitat in the same area and over 1,200 acres of it island-wide.” This is one of the areas where Huslander’s assessment is wrong. Yes, there is plenty of this habitat on Assateague, but this is the only habitat located on the Bayside Point. The point itself is what is important. It is where the birds go due to its proximity to South Point. Many songbirds migrate at night. Many fly out over the ocean by accident. In the morning they realize that they are not where they belong and find land. Once they hit Assateague exhausted and starving, they search for food and a route to continue their migration. Songbirds would rather not fly out over open water, but from the air they can see the Bayside Point and in close proximity, South Point. They then head to Bayside Point, rest, feed and restore critical energy reserves essential for survival on their migration. The migrating birds need that habitat there to help them survive migration. The birds are drawn to the point. All of my data is available on www.ebird.com.

    The importance of the Bayside Point is historically well known. I am shocked that Bill Hulslander in his assessment did not discover this. I will be at the Bayside Point several mornings a week his Fall. Feel free to come down and I can show you first hand how much wildlife comes through that area. You will be able to witness how many birds feed on that point, building up energy reserves to make their “jump” over the bay to the mainland.

    The Bayside Point draws tourism to Assateague. Birders come to Worcester County from all over Maryland, the U.S. and the world. They come to witness migration at the point. They pay money to enter the park. Destroying this habitat could result in a loss of tourism not only for the park, but also for the county.

    One last thing, the article also quotes Huslander as saying “We’re only adding less than a dozen parking spaces”. For less than 12 new parking spaces, is the cost in dollars and the destruction of a critical and historically important bird migration stopover really worth it?

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