BERLIN – Assateague Island’s natural resources are only in fair shape, according to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
The NPCA cites problems with invasive species, over-sand vehicles, and water quality as significant factors in the rating of the Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS). The park earned a “fair” rating, scoring 75 out of 100 points.
“In general, we don’t have any disagreement with the findings of the report. We think it’s a pretty fair assessment of the current state of Assateague,” said Carl Zimmerman, AINS Chief of Natural Resources. “Obviously, we’re not satisfied with the resources in fair condition.”
Wild ponies, the most visible and potent symbol of Assateague Island, are not native to the island and have a severe impact on native vegetation. The current population of 140 equines should be reduced to a herd of just 80 to 100 animals, the report advises. AINS staff has been looking into benign ways to reduce the herd, now controlled through a contraceptive vaccine, for the last year. A new report on the herd reduction possibilities is due this fall.
Over-sand vehicles disrupt beach habitat for shorebirds and plants, including the threatened piping plover and seabeach amaranth plant. Ghost crabs and other invertebrate species also suffer, according to the report.
Cultural and archeological resources are also in trouble, with little funding available to investigate and preserve assets like the Assateague Coast Guard Station and shipwrecks like the steamer U.S.S. Despatch, the first presidential yacht, which sank off the island in 1891.
“The cultural resources, while they’re very nice in some cases, they have taken a back seat to managing the natural environment,” Zimmerman said.
Funding is a challenge in this area, he pointed out, as regional sites like the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Gettysburg battlefield are much higher profile.
Aquatic grasses, despite encouraging gains in recent years, have begun to decline again, as has water quality in the southern coastal bays, long thought to be in a better position than their northern cousins.
“Some of the issues we don’t have extensive control of,” Zimmerman said. “The best example of this is water quality in Maryland’s coastal bays.”
Water quality depends on the State of Maryland, Worcester County and local residents.
“We try to work with those folks to move forward,” he said.
Zimmerman would like to see Chincoteague Bay, which lies between Assateague Island and the mainland, designated a Tier III impaired water body.
“You’ve got water quality in the bays that isn’t as pristine as it should be, considering it’s a body of water next to a federally protected island,” Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastkeeper, said. “The designation of Chincoteague Bay as a Tier III water body will help to increase buffers along the western shore of the bay and implement stronger nutrient reduction mandates. This will encourage less development and more land conservation.”
On the topic, Zimmerman added, “I think there’s a lot of discussion that needs to take place. It has to be a collective decision. I think it would help.”
A very public example of impaired water quality occurred last weekend, when swimmers at the southern end of the island, over the Virginia state line, were advised that the Atlantic Ocean was contaminated with fecal bacteria. The advisory, which did not close the beach or forbid swimming, was posted on Friday, but taken down early afternoon on Saturday.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Zimmerman said.
Fifteen years ago, AINS would have been rated “poor” rather than “fair”, he said.
Progress has been made, but problems still exist.
“The water quality is the one that’s going to be the most challenging,” Zimmerman said. “People love to live on the coast. It’s the part of the country that’s had the highest growth in the last few decades. There’s a price to pay for that.”
While AINS has a lot of work to do, improvements are under way. Wildlife is being studied, a northern-end sand replenishment project is showing good results, and both piping plovers and seabranch amaranth populations continue to increase steadily.
Funding is crucial to improvements at the park, officials agree.
“The significant increase in national park operating funds now pending before Congress is sorely needed at Assateague,” said Joy Oakes, NPCA’s Mid-Atlantic senior regional director.
Despite Assateague’s popularity, the National Seashore lacks organized local support.
“One of the things Assateague [National Seashore] doesn’t have is a dedicated friends group and that’s one of the things we’d like to happen,” said Zimmerman.
A friends group, like the one that supports Assateague State Park, would advocate for the park and raise money.
“This is a little bit of a call to action for the community,” Zimmerman said. “We can’t do it alone. It takes a community effort by a lot of folks.”