By Misty Thornton
Editor, Wild Pony Tales
Beth Hanback is a bundle of energy and she needs to be. She’s the epicenter of a moving whirlwind with a dozen decisions an hour to make. Beth is the backbone and executive director of the Chincoteague Natural History Association, a group of supporters the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge could not do without.
She seems to know almost everything about the Refuge but says she learns something new every day.
Beth has been with the Association since early 2006 and became executive director in 2009. She has been executive director of the Eastern Shore SPCA, has worked at the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce and has also worked with horses for 30 years.
With the arrival of spring, the history association is preparing for another busy summer when 1.4 million visitors will roll down Maddox Boulevard, through the toll booths and wind up somewhere on Assateague Island, at the visitor center, at the Lighthouse, at the great white sand beach along the Atlantic Ocean or perhaps on a bike trail.
The Natural History Association was created in 1986 as a non-profit, cooperating association, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group started out as a bunch of friends that wanted to give the islands’ visitors a better understanding and appreciation of the Refuge, and the natural history and the environment of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This includes the Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge near Cape Charles and other wildlife locations for which the Refuge management has responsibility.
The Association helps out Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge by providing them with new and revised environmental education and interpretive programs. Interpretation on the bus tours and interpretation to the Assateague Lighthouse are a few of the programs the Association provides, as well as the lecture series. They also help sponsor various workshops.
According to Michael Dixon, manager of visitor services at the Refuge, "Many of the challenges at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge are far too large for any individual, group, or agency to resolve on their own. Whether making plans for a fun special event, tackling contentious conservation issues or creating numerous opportunities for visitors to enjoy nature; we find comfort in the steadfast loyalty and support of our friend, the Chincoteague Natural History Association."
The CNHA has developed and printed teaching manuals for teachers in the region. They highly encourage teaching students about Refuge resources and how they can help the environments and their ecosystems, as well as support the science and environmental education curriculums. The CNHA also enables the refuges to receive matching grants that allow interns, teacher workshops, junior refuge managers, and junior birder programs to continue.
The natural history association provides financial support for training interns and interpreters for programs run by the Refuge.
The Association has roughly 400 members scattered all over the world. Membership fees range from $15 for an individual membership to a lifetime membership for $500. All dues and contributions to the CNHA are tax deductible.
Memberships include a subscription to The Piping Plover (their quarterly newsletter), 10 percent discount on items purchased from the CNHA sales outlets or mail orders as well as purchases at all other refuges on the Delmarva Peninsula. Seasonal discounts on adult tickets for their wildlife tour bus are included, as well as a CNHA sew-on patch with memberships of $25 or more. Voting privileges at the Annual Meeting and participation in activities specifically planned for CNHA members are included as well.
One of the most popular projects of the Association is the guided bus tours. The tours run about two hours out the service road into the
Assateague wilderness. The bus drivers gladly stop along the way for visitors to see the famous Delmarva fox squirrels, egrets, blue herons, and sika elks that roam about. It would not be unusual for a bus to stop for a turtle crossing the road. There is hardly a question the drivers cannot answer, although some visitors put them to the test.
Of course most questions are about the famous Chincoteague wild ponies and tour guests are not often disappointed in seeing the ponies from the northern herd up close. The bus tour is almost the only way visitors can see any ponies at all.
No vehicles, not even bicycles, are allowed out the service road. Visitors may take boat tours that usually include a view of the ponies and those who are lucky may see ponies grazing along Beach Road on the way out to the Atlantic Ocean.
The bus tours, closed for the winter months, will begin Easter weekend and continue each weekend of April and May, then the schedule will expand to cover weekdays.
Other tours and trails are supported financially by the Association. The trails offer opportunities for enjoying wildlife, photography, learning, even just taking a break for fresh air. All trails cover relatively flat terrain. There are 7.5 miles of paved bicycling trails. Some unpaved trails are restricted to foot access, but not all. Most of the Beach Road bike trail is unpaved, but open to cycling.
The Association believes in its responsibility is to the visitors and the customers. “I work with vendors constantly to try and raise more money for the refuges and the Association to help make its visitors’ expectations fulfilled.” said Beth. “We’re always trying to find things to sell in our sales outlets that aren’t in the multitude of what everyone on Chincoteague Island is selling in their stores. We’re not trying to compete.”
The history association also funds the Eagle cam, a camera that was located high up in a tree on the Wildlife Loop on Assateague Island. This camera provided visitors with a close up view of the lives and characteristics of real life Bald Eagles. Due to the damage of Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, the Eagle Cam will be out of service for the majority of 2013.
“To be doing what I do, you have to be a jack of all trades,” Beth added. “There are so many things to keep in order and take care of every day in and out of the office.”
The Refuge staff will be happy to provide visitors with trail maps and brochures filled with information on wildlife and insects, Beth said.
The Association uses all of the money it receives from the gift shops, donations, and bus tours to help renew the old trails, tours, and provide funding for grants and scholarships, as well as the annual activities held at the Refuge.
Assateague Lighthouse tours will be temporarily discontinued due to the repainting and restoring the structure. The Association is the single largest contributor to the Assateague Lighthouse restoration project.
For schedules and prices of tickets for the bus and lighthouse tours call the CNHA office: (757) 336-3696. All money used to purchase lighthouse tickets goes only toward the lighthouse and its necessities. The history association is planning on providing more interpretive activities within the Lighthouse area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with the Association through Refuge management to provide this type of visitor service.
The Association supports several programs with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge that have been established for the benefit of younger visitors. The programs are Junior Birder, Junior Refuge Manager, Virginia Junior Duck Stamp contest and Children in the Woods Camp. Descriptions on these listed programs can be found on the Chincoteague Natural History Association’s online webpage, www.piping-plover.org.
Friday night lectures funded by the CNHA will start in May and cover a wide variety of topics. All meetings are free and open to public.
“We focus on Quality rather than Quantity.” said Beth. Each program is specifically picked from the best. There are numerous things that go on at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge every year. Some years have had more activities for visitors than the next. “To pick and have the best programs for the CNWR visitor center, requires more cost and funding; which at times can be an issue,” said Beth.
To contact the Association:
Chincoteague Natural History Association
8231 Beach Rd
PO Box 917, Chincoteague VA,
Phone: 1 757 336 3696