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.