ASSATEAGUE ISLAND — The harsh realities of sea level rise and climate change have forced Assateague Island National Seashore to admit that it is at a proverbial crossroads.
Yet, as the beloved local and federally owned landmark enjoys its 50th anniversary, it also faces real questions about its future. Over the course of the last 90 days, the public took the opportunity to speak out in full voice about the various alternatives outlined in the General Management Plan.
Assateague Island National Seashore Superintendent Deborah Darden sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk about a lively public comment period and how the plan for the future of Assateague could be shaped by both Mother Nature’s wrath and the general public’s wishes.
Q: There’s been much conversation over the course of the past 90 days about the future of Assateague Island. Before we get into the details of it all, was it surprising how the conversation, thanks largely to social media, went from a calm plan for the future to something that resembled a bit of mass hysteria as word spread that something so beloved like the National Seashore could allegedly be “going away?”
A: I’m glad that people care, and it makes a big difference that people want to see Assateague remain. So, I was glad to see that people are so passionate about the place and want to see it continue. As far as what happened on social media, I think that it can be a little bit confusing trying to understand these national environmental policy act projects.
What the law tells us is that we have to look at the broadest range of alternatives, but those alternatives may not be the ones that are going to be selected, and they aren’t the alternatives that the National Park Service preferred. But, we do have to look at this broad range of alternatives, so we looked at everything from doing nothing, to adding sand to the beach to trying to work with the island as the island moves to just saying, ‘we give up and go away.’ But I just want to stress that the ‘we give up and go away’ was not our preferred alternative.
Q: So it was essentially a list of all the possible solutions, but you and the folks here at the Park Service had your preferred alternative. Tell me about your preferred option, which was Alternative 3?
A: In our preferred alternative, we were taking the attitude that we wanted to provide to the public pretty much exactly what we are providing today. We want to have camping, beach going, bayside access, we want to have OSV, over-sand vehicle route use. So we want all those things to continue, but we acknowledge that the island is moving and as the island moves westward, the location of those things have to move westward, too.
So, what this alternative says is that we are going to continue to provide all of those activities, but they are going to move as the island moves. 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, it may be that the island has moved too much and there’s not room for all of those things on the island. If that were to happen, we might move some things. Say, RV camping, for instance, we’d move that over to the mainland. The thrust of the alternative was to enable people to do all the things that they do on the island and move those things as the island moves.
Q: Several months ago, I was doing a story on some of the storm damage that occurred in the South Beach area and the parking lots there. Assateague Chief of Interpretation and Education Liz Davis told me, ‘someday, we are going to have to retreat from this island … Probably not in my lifetime, but someday.’ That’s a harsh reality of the situation, especially for people who realize the truths or facts of what sea level rise and climate change means for this region. There are many others who do not believe sea level rise and climate change)is a reality, so that statement comes as a shock or a fallacy. So, how do you handle that?
A: That is something that I struggle with, but mostly, when we talk to people that have lived here a long time they are more aware than anybody that the island is moving westward. They can see the changes that have occurred in their lifetime. I think if we can agree that things are changing and we have to find a way to deal with those changes, people generally are very sympathetic to that because, like I said, if you’ve lived here all your life, you can remember what it used to be like and what it is today. You can see those changes are occurring.
Q: Compared with how Ocean City handles storm, Assateague sort of stands back and allows nature to take its course. Is that the smartest play moving forward to provide those services and this experience to all the visitors?
A: Well, we do think it’s the best play and that’s why we chose Alternative 3 as our preferred alternative. We did look at an alternative that was a beach replenishment alternative, but the problem with that is that it’s tremendously expensive. Trying to maintain even a small portion of this 37-mile island costs a lot more money than what we probably have. But if we can work with the island and move things as they need to be moved, I think we can create a situation where we have the services way into the future, and that’s what we were trying to do with our preferred alternative.
Q: As you look at the 37 miles of the island, are there spots that have been more impacted by what we’ve been talking about — the island moving westward. Is it more of a concern on the Maryland side or the Virginia side for instance?
A: We do science on the island. Twice a year, we look at the shoreline position. That’s showing us where we are seeing the most erosion on the island. The erosion isn’t constant up and down the island. There’s a lot in the north and a lot in the south. And then, there are places where it is basically just static in the middle. So, I think it really depends on where you are on the island to see where the most erosion is taking place.
Q: So, going back to the fact that there are people in this region who may not believe that climate change or sea level rise is a reality, is there a spot on the island that you can point to and say, ‘here is a perfect example of something that is changing’?
A: If you look down at Chincoteague where we provide services to visitors at the Chincoteague beach, the location of our visitor’s center has moved three times. The original location of that visitor’s center is now out in the ocean. Many people remember when that visitor’s center was further out, and they remember that’s it’s moved several times.
But, we see examples all over the island. For instance, Jonas destroyed about 10 campsites in our Oceanside camping (area) with about five or six feet of sand. If you look at that from the perspective of how we would handle that with the various alternatives, under alternative 2, which was the ‘move sand’ alternative, we would try to clean all of that off and move the dune back eastward from its current location. But, under our preferred alternative, what we would probably try to do is find a new location for 10 more campsites somewhere here on the island. We still want to have the same number of campsites here on the island, but we would find a new location for those campsites.
Under alternative 4, which is the one that got everyone so concerned, we’d just say, ‘hey, they are gone. That’s just the way of nature, and we are just going to let them go.’ But, again, the preferred alternative says that we are going to work with nature, recognize that the dune has moved westward, and try to find a new location.
Q: What was the biggest takeaway or perhaps the most fascinating thing for you during the course of the 90-day public comment period, which just ended on May 2?
A: I think it was the passion. It’s great for me to see how much people love the island and how much they care about it. We’ve gotten a lot of comments and many of them start with people’s personal experiences on the island and how much it means for them and their families to come here. That’s a really wonderful thing for us to see — that outpouring of love and caring for Assateague.
Q: How confident are you that the preferred alternative will be the chosen alternative and when do you think that decision will ultimately be made?
A: Before we decide what the preferred alternative is, we are going to read every single comment that we got. We are going to look at every comment and pull out what was important about that comment and then look at our preferred alternative and see if we need to make changes or alterations. We got many thoughtful comments so I’m sure that we will be making some changes to the alternative based on some of those comments.
Q: Do you get the sense that the general public is leaning toward the same alternative choice as you and the folks at the National Seashore are?
A: We haven’t analyzed all the comments, so I don’t have a definitive answer for you yet on which alternative is the public’s preferred choice. But, when we took the alternatives out to the public to review in 2012, the one that became our preferred alternative was the one the public wanted the most.
Q: You were criticized by a few local municipalities, including elected officials during this process. How did you handle that criticism as you were trying to go through the steps of the process to get to a proper solution?
A: I thought we had a great dialogue with the various towns and the county and with the town of Chincoteague. While they all had suggestions on how to change the alternative, that’s exactly why we go out to the public for public comment: to find out what works and what doesn’t work and figure out with the public and with the municipalities what we should be looking at and how we should be altering our plan and our thinking so we end up with an alternative that is preferred, not only by the agency, but also the people in the community.
Q: You are originally from Texas. What’s the thing that fascinates you the most about this region and about this particular seashore?
A: I have always loved seashores. I grew up going to Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas when I was a child. This seashore is so beautiful, and the horses are incredible and great, and it just gives me a feeling that I just love.
Q: Earlier, we mentioned some of the damage that winter storms inflicted on the island. Talk about where you are now in your preparation for the upcoming summer season?
A: Our staff has made a tremendous effort, especially down in Chincoteague, and it looks like we will have the parking lots and everything else open for the public by Memorial Day.
Q: Is there a timeline on when you may announce any alterations to your preferred alternatives?
A: We are going to review those public comments over the summer and then I hope by the fall, we’ll bring a final alternative or plan to show the changes we’ve made to respond to public comment. After that, there is a 30-day waiting period after the final is printed, and my boss, the regional director of the northeast region, will look at the entire record, the final document, all the public comments, and he will be the decision on what will be the final alternative.
Q: So, I guess the big takeaway for this summer, is that nothing is really going to change.
A: Yes, everything will be just as it was in previous years, except for those 10 campsites which are moving. Again, our intention is that when people come to Assateague, they find all the things they’ve always done are here and available to them to continue to do.
(Editor’s Note: To listen to this conversation in the podcast, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com.)