Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter IX:

In addition to the major development proposals in the original Assateague Island National Seashore master plan, certain other plans for or affecting Assateague never came to fruition. Three most occupying seashore management were those for a coastal engineering research pier, an inland waterway, and a wilderness area. The Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the first two undertakings; the wilderness proposal originated internally.

The Coastal Engineering Research Center Pier

In September 1966 the Coastal Engineering Research Center (CERC) of the Corps of Engineers inquired about a possible location on Assateague for a pier containing devices to measure ocean waves, tides, surges, and depths. The Park Service was sympathetic and suggested a location about six miles south of the end of its existing road in Maryland. The proposed pier was included in the one—sheet master plan of September 1967. "With the growing involvement of the National Park Service in seashore areas, we are very much interested in the data that will result from the CERC pier and are happy to participate through its location at this national seashore," Superintendent Bertrum C. Roberts wrote the CERC director the following month. The Service would have interpretive responsibilities at the pier and would ultimately inherit it for recreational use. [1]

CERC approved the location and obtained a special use permit for the site in April 1968. Thereafter difficulties arose. CERC received only one construction bid in 1969, greatly exceeding the estimated cost. The pier was redesigned, but a second bid opening in 1970 revealed another costly offer. To cut costs, CERC sought permission to relocate the pier closer to the existing road terminus. Henry G. Schmidt, director of the NPS Northeast Region, denied this request in April 1971. [2]

The October CERC published notice of its permit application for construction of the pier with a 6.2—mile access road. The road was a red flag to those who had fought the earlier development proposals for Assateague. Widespread conservationist opposition was reflected in a negative stand by Maryland's Joint Executive—Legislative Committee on Assateague Island. Representative William O. Mills and Senator Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland came out against the project. In March 1972 Representative John A. Blatnick, chairman of the House Public Works Committee, asked the Corps of Engineers to abandon the venture. It complied immediately, later selecting another site in North Carolina. [3]

The Delmarva Inland Waterway

In the mid—1960s the Corps of Engineers developed plans for an inland small boat waterway from Cape Charles, Virginia, to Lewes, Delaware, a distance of 145 miles. The plans called for a 100—foot—wide, 6—foot—deep channel from the mouth of the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay, with an intersecting Chincoteague Bay—Chesapeake Bay canal across the Delmarva Peninsula utilizing the Pocomoke River.

The Corps held public hearings on the project in April 1967. The District Engineer determined it economically sound except for the Pocomoke River leg. Representative Rogers C. B. Morton, a strong supporter of the waterway, asked that its submission to the Governor of Maryland for approval be deferred until more justification could be found for including the cross—peninsular canal. The Corps proceeded in 1970 with preparation of an environmental impact statement on the balance of the project. In 1972 the state made the Pocomoke a Maryland Scenic River, eliminating any prospect of its incorporation in the waterway. [4]

The Committee to Preserve Assateague strongly opposed the project, fearing further degradation of Chincoteague Bay. Superintendent Thomas F. Norris, Jr., expressed similar concerns in a February 1974 memorandum to his regional director:

My own comments on the proposal have been very guarded. I can readily see that any acceleration of recreational boating in the Chincoteague Bay will bring pressure on us to establish and maintain docking places, marinas, launching ramps, and the associated dredging and maintenance of approach channels. These latter are environmentally questionable and very expensive to construct and maintain. It is also significant that the Maryland Park Service has abandoned its proposal to build a marina in the State park. [5]

In June Regional Director Chester L. Brooks officially commented on the waterway to the Maryland Water Resources Administration. He noted that little if any of the proposed route lay within the national seashore boundary but predicted effects on the seashore from disturbance of channel bottoms, water pollution, and increased demand for boating facilities on Assateague:

With respect to the latter, the National Park Service considers that most of the water—oriented facilities proposed for development in the "Plan for Management and Development of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore," September 5, 1967, are now inoperative. For these reasons, the Service does not support or encourage alterations or improvements to the existing channel, which would contribute to the deterioration of the present character of the bays or which would generate public pressure for establishing docks, marinas, boaters campgrounds, landing ramps, and associated lateral approach channels on Assateague Island to enhance recreational boating therein.

The position letter, drafted by Norris, went on to note the existing NPS programs for public enjoyment of bayside resources and cited the state's 1972 Joint Executive—Legislative Committee report opposing marina facilities in Assateague State Park. [6]

In 1976 the governors of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia all came out against the Delmarva Inland Waterway, effectively killing the project. [7]

The Assateague Wilderness Proposal

The Wilderness Act of 1964 directed certain Federal agencies to study lands under their jurisdiction and recommend to the President and Congress those that appeared to qualify for designation as wilderness. [8] Because Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was in existence and included roadless islands when the law was enacted, its consideration was mandatory. Study of the portion of Assateague subsequently acquired by the Park Service was not mandatory but was judged appropriate in view of its juxtaposition and similar wilderness potential.

In 1973 the entire refuge and the NPS land on Assateague were evaluated. Superintendent Norris and Refuge Manager J. C. Appel recommended 8,000 acres for wilderness designation. That December NPS Deputy Director Russell E. Dickenson and Director Lynn A. Greenwalt of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (BSFW) conveyed the recommendation to the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. "We feel that this wilderness proposal is an outstanding one and it is hoped that Assateague Island might well become the first to allow the natural processes of a barrier island to flourish as they once did without mechanical alteration," they wrote. "This we feel, is the really significant aspect of the proposal." [9]

The two bureaus issued a draft environmental statement on the proposed wilderness, reduced to 6,500 acres by deletion of 1,500 acres from the refuge, in March 1974. Public hearings on the proposal as outlined in the document were held in April at the refuge auditorium and the national seashore headquarters. Two hundred ninety persons attended, of whom 25 spoke for the wilderness and 13 against. Chincoteague motel operator Russell W. Everett called it "a great big congressional padlock." The Maryland opponents included Worcester County officials and the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "To create such an area would create a paradise for hippies, nudist colonies and the American Streaking Society," Delegate Russell O. Hickman contended, to which Judith Johnson of the Committee to Preserve Assateague replied that the mosquitoes and greenhead flies would inhibit streaking. "The effect of compromise is visible on the coastline from Maine to Florida," Ted Oberman of the Audubon Naturalist Society testified for the proponents. "Let's preserve one coastline that's left." [10]

Fifty—six of 69 organizations commenting for the record favored the wilderness, as did 750 of 808 individuals reporting their views. The state of Maryland, represented by Secretary of Natural Resources James B. Coulter, was among the supporters. [11] But Representative Robert E. Bauman of Maryland, more responsive to his Worcester County constituents, favored postponing wilderness designation until a new comprehensive plan for Assateague was undertaken (Chapter III).

In August Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton referred the wilderness proposal to the President. Of the 6,500 acres, 1,740 were recommended for immediate designation; the other 4,760 constituted "potential wilderness," to receive full status when nonconforming uses and structures were eliminated. The 1,740 acres comprised 1,300 acres in the refuge (882 in Virginia, 418 in Maryland) and 440 Maryland acres under the Park Service. The "potential wilderness" was primarily Maryland land subject to retained rights of use and occupancy. The area extended from approximately seven miles north of the state line to five miles south and included the beach to the mean low tide line in Virginia, an addition to what was previously proposed. Because the state owned the beach below the mean high tide line in Maryland, that line remained the boundary there. [12]

Wilderness designation would mean that motorized equipment would be prohibited, including private and administrative ORVs; that a walk—in camp at the north end of the refuge would have to be relocated; that waterfowl hunting blinds would be disallowed; and that the connecting road could not be built, requiring repeal of its mandate in the seashore authorizing act. [13]

On December 9 President Gerald R. Ford sent the proposal, including a draft bill, to Congress. The same day, the press reported Representative Bauman's further reservations about inclusion of the Virginia beach, which would prevent ORVs from ever gaining access there. "The President's proposal would in effect place one of the last unspoiled Atlantic beach areas out of reach for the average person, and I'm opposed to it," Bauman said. [14]

The wilderness proposal coincided with the effort to amend the original seashore legislation and, as noted, was contingent upon such amendment. Deputy Assistant Secretary Curtis Bohien, NPS Associate Director Richard Curry, and David E. Schmidt, legislative support data coordinator, held a strategy session in January 1975. Aware that Representative Bauman could endanger the main legislative effort if it were linked with the wilderness proposal, the group decided not to make any reference to the latter in the report or display map they were preparing on the amendatory bills. "We are to concentrate on getting the necessary changes in the Act completed and through legislation first without having it jeopardized or delayed by opposition which has developed over the Wilderness Proposal," Schmidt wrote the NPS regional director. "[T]he timing for any possible action on the Wilderness Proposal would be in the more distant future." [15]

This strategy was followed. James M. Lambe, chief of the NPS Legislation Division, assured Representative Bauman that September that the Service would have no objection to congressional deferral of the Assateague wilderness until the comprehensive plan in the pending legislation was completed. Following enactment of the legislation in 1976, several wilderness bills including all or part of the Assateague proposal were introduced in the next Congress; however, their Assateague wilderness provisions were not pressed and did not pass. [16]

The Service also came to have second thoughts about wilderness on Assateague. Its "Preferred Planning Alternative for Assateague Island Comprehensive Plan" of 1979 no longer recommended such designation for the NPS lands in Maryland, declaring it incompatible with the existing private occupancy and use rights and continued ORV access. The final planning product stemming from the 1976 legislation, the General Management Plan of 1982, restated why the wilderness alternative was rejected:

This alternative was not selected because of long—term retained rights of individuals within the proposed wilderness boundary and because it would preclude existing methods of access for recreational purposes. When this area is free of retained rights, wilderness designation will be reconsidered.

Since the last retained rights would not expire for another 20 years, reconsideration was a long time off.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003