Relocating Visitor Facilities Threatened by Erosion, Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia
Assateague Island National Seashore (the park) is responsible for maintaining and managing access to a recreational beach that is impacted by storms multiple times each year. Maintaining the recreational beach in its present location is unsustainable in the face of continued storms, shoreline erosion, and sea level rise. The park must develop cost-effective, sustainable ways to provide a recreational beach and beach access that are acceptable to local interests and visitors.
The park manages a recreational beach within the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. This beach is the primary economic driver for the local community of Chincoteague, Virginia, which caters to visitors with hotels, restaurants, and other amenities. The park committed to maintaining and managing the recreational beach through a 1967 agreement with the USFWS, which had an existing agreement with the citizen group Assateague Bridge and Beach Authority to have a recreational beach in exchange for construction of a bridge connecting the town with the refuge.
The recreational beach is in one of the island’s most dynamic locations, and has experienced accelerated shoreline erosion, increased storm impacts, and frequent overwash since the 1980s. Annual repair and relocation of roads and visitor parking lots in this area continue to be high maintenance, expensive, time-consuming, and stressful for staff who must rush to complete months-long repairs before each summer tourist season.
Over the years, the park has implemented several solutions to improve sustainability. Infrastructure has been replaced with portable substitutes that can be relocated off-island in advance of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-forecasted storms and in response to erosion. The park now constructs roads and parking lots from island-compatible materials, a clay base with clam shell for a road surface, which are dug up and reused when the lot is moved, and which also avoid the introduction of foreign debris such as asphalt on post-storm beaches. The surface requires twice-weekly maintenance and additional clam shells need to be added every year or two. Parking lot repairs have been supported by Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO) funding and existing park staff.
Although these efforts have improved the sustainability and lifespan of recreational beach facilities, new solutions will need to be developed. Due to continued island narrowing in this location, the current parking lot is now at its inland limit because it is backed by a wetland, leaving no room for another move westward, based on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) wetland delineations.
In August of 2015, the USFWS released their Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (CCP/EIS) for the Chincoteague and Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuges. In this plan, the USFWS identified two solutions: (1) alternative transportation (shuttle or bus), and (2) relocation of recreational access to a more stable location. Relocation of the recreational beach was recommended because the frequency of washouts resulting in beach access closure is expected to increase in the future.
In 2017, the Abbreviated Final General Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (GMP/EIS) was released. This document is intended to guide long-term decision-making about the management of the Assateague Island National Seashore. Relocation was also a recommended future implementation planning strategy in the 2017 GMP/EIS.
Outcomes and Conclusions
In consideration of cost constraints and town interests, relocating the recreational beach is not only the most reasonable solution but also may be considered essential. To determine suitable parking lot locations and configurations, the park has used shoreline monitoring data to forecast future shoreline erosion rates, and has worked with the USFWS to identify appropriate areas for relocation. The park and USFWS will also use forthcoming results of a US Geological Survey model indicating the impacts of sea level rise and storm intensity along the island.
Due to its ongoing success, the existing portable infrastructure would likely be used in the new location, along with the visitor center, which has been moved twice already. The clay base and clamshell surface might also be used in the new location. The biggest challenge in moving forward with relocation of the recreational beach will likely be opposition by the Town of Chincoteague. The town dislikes both strategies (i.e. alternative transportation and relocation), believing they would discourage tourism. The town insists that the 1960s agreements require the government to maintain not only the beach but also visitor parking areas. Furthermore, shuttles are not financially self-supporting, and the town, the USFWS, and the park do not have the operational funds to support this expensive option. Education and outreach programs may help to strengthen the park’s efforts. The project is ongoing.
Relocating Visitor Facilities Threatened by Erosion, Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia [Case study on a project of Assateague Island National Seashore]. Excerpted from Schupp, C.A., R.L. Beavers, and M.A. Caffrey [eds.]. 2015. Coastal Adaptation Strategies: Case Studies. NPS 999/129700. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.(Last updated August 2021)