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Storms Raise Everyone’s Eyebrows as They Look to Future of the Islands

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Sandy 'A Storm of Two Faces'

By Zack Hoverson and Robert Boswell

As management at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island looks ahead to the upcoming release in January of its choice of a conservation plan, it again takes into account the wide impact of storms in recent history.

Chosen from three plans that have all drawn strong criticism from the Town of Chincoteague and the business community, the preference of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will spell out the direction for the Refuge for the next 15 years, in particular access to the widely used white sand Atlantic Ocean beach.

Lou Hinds, Refuge manager, in an interview with Wild Pony Tales last week, was not about to indicate which plan he favors. He was more focused on the work his staff is doing to clean up from the latest hurricane and make the Refuge safe for visitors. Each year some 1.4 million visitors come to the Island which  consists of more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest. The Island is also home to the famous Chincoteague wild ponies that live in two fenced in areas, although since Hurricane Sandy some are still running loose.

Last month Sandy  toppled many trees including the one on the Wildlife Loop where the live eagle camera was mounted. The images from that camera had become a favorite with Refuge visitors who could record their feelings in a journal after the thrill of watching an eagle mom feed its newborn hatchlings.

Sandy also caused extensive road damage and, like the other big wash-over storms, all but destroyed the recreational beach parking lots, although the ocean has returned much of the sand to the beach itself which will be wide and sparkling as ever to beachgoers this coming summer.

But it will take another $800,000 to restore beach parking back to the 961 parking spaces. The money has again been requested from federal highway funds and if approved, work will begin in March. Ish Ennis, chief of maintenance for the National Park Service in Assateague, which has responsibility for the mile-long recreational beach, said it would take 60 to 90 days to complete. Parking for about 50 cars has already been restored.

There have been three major storms in the past four years including the 2009 November nor'easter as well as Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy last month. The refuge management has learned to cope with these storms, starting well ahead of time to remove beach structures, pick up trash cans and secure anything that might blow around. Mr. Hinds, said, "With the frequency of storms, staff members have become used to packing up their offices and relocating to the Marine Science Consortium on Wallops Island.” That is where they went before Sandy hit and remained there until Wednesday when things had calmed down.  Before reentering the Refuge, Mr. Hinds and the team of 30 who accompanied him had been kept abreast of conditions by two employees and families who live and stayed on Assateague Island during Sandy.

Sandy had a wide and diverse impact on the Refuge. With their nest on the ground, the Bald Eagles have chosen a new tree near the old one and are already rebuilding, although Mr. Hinds wishes they would find another location. He is not sure the new tree could stand much wind. “To put a camera in the nest without disturbing the eagles is quite an undertaking, according to Michael Dixon, manager of visitor services. He and Mr. Hinds agreed it is probably too late to remount the camera this year. The cameras have just been recovered.

Mr. Hinds said that after taking a helicopter tour of the damage over the refuge he felt that the northern part of Assateague Island did not have as much tree damage as the south end due to Chincoteague Island protecting Assateague. Another observation made by Mr. Hinds was that Irene and Sandy both created breaches in the beach into Swan Cove Pool which helped drain the flooding created by both storms. This did not happen in the 2009 nor'easter and the refuge remained flooded much longer.

With him on the helicopter tour were Chincoteague Mayor Jack Tarr, and Trish Kicklighter, superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore. "My biggest surprise," said Mr. Hinds, "was that most of the damage, 95 percent of it, was on the south end of the Island. As we flew further north there was not the same amount of damage, not as many trees down." As Mr. Hinds called Hurricane Sandy "a storm of two faces," he said that the winds coming from the North-East, which caused the storm surge flooding of the impoundments was one face, the other being the very strong winds from the South West which caused severe damage to Beach Road. As the winds came, northwest Chincoteague Island took the brunt of them, weakening the winds as they hit the western shore of Assateague Island.

Mr. Hinds said a strong storm surge filled Refuge impoundments and the water was high enough to wash across Beach Road, eroding a lot of roadway. In the helicopter, Mr. Hinds said while they did not find more trees down to the north, they could see how badly the town of Chincoteague was flooded. The mayor banned non-emergency vehicles from Chincoteague streets during most of the storm. Mr. Hinds said despite the heavy damage, there is nothing to cause any changes to the Comprehensive Conservation Plan, known as the CCP.

"The CCP is a 15 year plan that is a framework from which other plans are made," he said. He said the plan influences what is put into pony management, hunt and other plans.” One change that has recently developed, Mr. Hinds said, is a need to reduce the populations of Canada and Snow Geese. "This will be something to address in the new hunt plan after the CCP is completed. There may be limited goose hunting allowed on Assateague Island."

As these storms become more and more frequent, hurricane Sandy being the most recent, it forces the refuge management to look at considerations on how to reduce the damage done to not only the Refuge but also to the recreational beach which will be addressed in the CCP.

One of lessons already learned by the Refuge management concerning the beach was that the old dune system was not as beneficial as previously thought. As Mr. Hinds explained,  “Some islands will support dunes and others don’t due to their unique geological features.” He also said the dunes were very expensive to maintain.

An unintended result of the dunes, he said, was the disruption of the over wash which would have built a new island to the west. Instead it extended Tom’s Cove Hook on the southern tip of Assateague.  As a result, the elimination of the dune system has allowed the natural cycle of things to take place, with the Island moving westward from approximately Swan Cove bike trail.

A common request Mr. Hinds hears is to install a snow fence on the recreational beach. "If the request were to install it for wildlife, we might consider it. But when people say to me putting a snow fence along the section would protect the town of Chincoteague then I have to ask myself, are we taking on a whole new aspect to the CCP that's not part of the refuge purposes."

The CCP has three options as how to address storm problems and they are labeled A, B, and C. The option of A is to proceed as the status quo and not change management plans. Option B is a balanced approach which calls for the integration of public use and access with species protection and habitat management. It also, calls for the relocation of the recreational beach and all 961 parking spaces 1.5 miles north of their current location where beach erosion and storm damage is not as much of a constant threat.

The C Alternative, labeled as the reduced disturbance option, focus on maximizing the habitat and wildlife management strategies and reduction of public access and of the recreational beach which would still be relocated 1.5 miles north but with only 480 parking spaces. In both options B and C the option of purchasing off-refuge parking would not be pursued.

Mr. Hinds said he hopes when the preferred option of the Refuge is released to the public in January that they will “look objectively at it.” Said Mr. Hinds, "This is a 15 to 20 year plan. We have to look at climate change, sea level rise and the constant damage during these major storm events."

Mr. Hinds said the selected plan will be released first to the public, giving people time to digest it. Then a public meeting will be held.

The National Park Service manages the recreational beach and also, has input in developing the CCP. The CCP will then after release and public input is taken into consideration be revised and released at a later date. What remains to be seen is how the community will react and what input citizens will have to preserve their businesses and community.

For more information go to http://www.fws.gov/northeast/planning/Chincoteague/ccphome.html

For more information and videos on the eagle's nest go to: /archives/1754

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