July 13, 2008

Driving on Assateague Island Under Review, Despite Tradition


By Kristen Wyatt

The Associated Press


The wild ponies of Assateague Island don't seem bothered by people - not even people driving hulking trucks and vans right up to the shore and setting up fishing poles and grills steps away from the crashing waves.

But driving on Assateague Island National Seashore is under review, and even ardent supporters of allowing anglers and campers to drive on the beach fear the days of getting trucks on the beach are numbered.

"I just think eventually access will be limited so much we won't be out here," said Jeff Hansen of nearby Whaleyville, holding a plate of smoked sausages for grilling by his Chevrolet van parked a few yards from the ocean. "It's sad."

Less than 20 miles of this barrier island that lies within Maryland and Virginia is open to four-wheel-drive vehicle traffic. The practice predates Assateague's becoming a national seashore in 1965, and mainlanders who grew up camping from vehicles insist they don't hurt wildlife if regulated.

"Going over to Assateague hunting and fishing is a lifestyle over here," said Howard Quillen of nearby Berlin, vice president of the Assateague Mobile Sportfishermen's Association .

The National Parks Conservation Association, a park advocacy group, said more needs to be done to ensure trucks aren't hurting plants and migratory birds that nest on Assateague. In a 2007 report, the group noted "significant erosion" to Assateague caused by over-sand vehicles.

The group joined with others in suing for limits on car driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, with a judge ordering a management plan there this spring. The Hatteras lawsuit did not seek a full ban on cars on the beach.

There's no lawsuit pending about the trucks at Assateague, but some are concerned about their presence.

The speed limit is 25 mph, but most drivers go much slower. Rangers close football-field-sized areas to vehicle traffic when they discover a nesting pair of piping plover birds, a threatened species of migratory shorebirds. For much of the summer, the Virginia side of the beach is off-limits because of plover nesting.

In the part of Assateague that is a Maryland state park, no vehicles are allowed on the sand.

Drivers at Assateague must sign a statement that they've read park rules for driving on the sand . More than 5,000 beach driving permits are sold at Assateague each year, most for day use only.

Originally published by BY KRISTEN WYATT.

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