ASSATEAGUE — With the federal government shutting down at midnight, the impact is already being felt at Assateague Island National Seashore, which is now officially closed until further notice.
When the clock struck midnight without any progress on the impasse over the federal spending plan, driven largely by the divide over Obamacare, the federal government began a shutdown as expected early Tuesday. Federal facilities and offices all over the country are closed today, including Assateague Island National Seashore.
Late Monday, with no deal likely, Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS) officials were already planning for the pending shutdown, informing campers and other visitors they would have to leave and closing the barrier islands many facilities. AINS Chief of Interpretation and Education Rachelle Daigneault said late Monday the island began preparations for closure in advance of the pending shutdown.
“We will shut down Bayberry Rd. leading into the park and both the Maryland and Virginia districts will be closed until there is some resolution,” she said. “Even at this time of year, we average about 7,000 visitors per day, so this is obviously a significant impact.”
Other facilities on the island are closed, including the Visitor’s Center, which averages about 700 visitors per day even in the offseason. In addition, numerous school groups were scheduled to tour the island and participate in interactive education programs this week and they too have been cancelled.
“We were expecting about 200 school groups this week and now they won’t be able to come,” said Daigneault. “It’s disappointing for them and it’s disappointing for us.”
Daigneault said all hunting areas are closed, as is the north-end Inlet area, which is popular for boaters at all times of the year. The Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) area is closed indefinitely, as are all day-use areas and all camping areas. Daigneault said AINS officials spent much of the weekend and Monday informing campers they would have to pack up and leave. Some were informed of the pending closure even before they arrived at Assateague, but Daigneault said one bright spot is that neighboring Assateague Island State Park remains open and many of the campers will be accommodated there.
“We are very lucky in that respect that the state park will be open,” she said. “The campers will have to leave, but one bright spot is that most will be able to go over to the state park and make arrangements to camp. It’s not the busiest time of the year, obviously, but we do have quite a large number of campers. Unfortunately, many have planned their trips here for a long time and now they will be asked to leave.”
Daigneault said most of the Assateague Island National Seashore’s staff will not be working for the duration of the shutdown, but a skeleton crew will remain on the island. She said about five law enforcement officers will remain on the island, along with four maintenance personnel and one employee to keep the equipment in the Visitor’s Center aquariums up and running. She was uncertain about the exact number of employees that will be furloughed during the shutdown, but estimated it at around 40.
Daigneault said she was uncertain how long the shutdown would last, although Park Service officials remain hopeful it will be brief.
“We in the Park Service tend to be optimistic, but it’s so hard to predict,” she said. “The one thing we understood early on when this presented itself is that it would be very prudent for us to prepare for a shutdown and be proactive so that getting everybody off the island would be timely and efficient.”