Assateague Island’s Chosen Plan Seeks Compromise

ASSATEAGUE — Representing a compromise of sorts, the National Park Service this week issued a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the proposed relocation of a parking and picnic area on the barrier island damaged in 2012.

During Hurricane Sandy, 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 the long-term sustainability in the future. The resulting plan is to move structures and parking areas, for example, when they are damaged or destroyed during storms in the future out of the shoreline areas and out of harm’s way to the extent possible.

Among the first examples of the new initiative is a proposed plan to move parking lots at the South Ocean Beach and the Bayside Picnic area damaged by Sandy to an area further from the shoreline and less prone to storm damage. However, moving the parking areas out of harm’s way would require clearing some vegetation to accomplish the relocation, which had the local and state birding community crying foul during. During the public comment period, birders and conservationists complained the clearing of vegetation to accommodate the parking lot relocation would destroy critical habitat for migratory birds on the island.

Assateague Island National Seashore officials heard the complaints and prepared two alternatives to allay the concerns. Under Alternative A, no action would be taken and the current management plan would remain in place. The National Park Service would continue to use and maintain the existing Bayside Picnic parking area, the South Ocean Beach parking area and the Life of the Dunes Trail parking area with no changes to the current infrastructure or locations.

Under Alternative B, or the preferred alternative, the existing Bayside Picnic parking area, the South Ocean Beach parking area and the Life of the Dunes Trail parking area would be removed and the first two would be relocated to locations less exposed to the elements and less susceptible to damage from future storm events. Implementing Alternative B would provide future visitor access to the named areas on Assateague, while limiting the time and cost to repair or replace them after most storms.

The approved FONSI represents a hybrid of sorts of the two proposed alternatives. As a result of the public comments, the NPS has selected Alternative B for the relocation of the South Ocean Beach while selecting elements of Alternative A for the Bayside Picnic parking areas for implementation. Instead of relocation, the Bayside Picnic parking area will stay in its current location, but will be reconstructed with a clay base and clam shell surface to help ensure that during future storm events, asphalt will not be washed into the bay.

“We listened to the public’s comments very carefully and have tried to craft a solution that both protects the bay environment and safeguards bird habitat,” said Assateague Island National Seashore Superintendent Debbie Darden. “We plan to begin a new process to find a permanent solution to the gradual erosion of the existing Bayside parking lot in the next few months. We hope to work carefully with the public to look at a broad range of alternatives that can ensure public access while protecting habitat.”

During the public comment period on the EA, when the birding community’s fear of lost habitat first emerged, Assateague Island officials pointed out that even if Alternative B was carried out and all of the lots were relocated, only about 1.2 acres would be cleared. AINS officials also pointed out there would still be 40 acres of habitat in the same area and over 1,299 acres of it island-wide.