Testimony of Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Department of the Interior

Before the House Committee on Natural Resources,
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs


Regarding

The Proposed Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

February 17, 2012 

Good morning Chairman Fleming and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).  Thank you for the opportunity to testify about one of the most popular units of the National Wildlife Refuge System (Refuge System) – Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on Assateague Island on the coast of Virginia. 

My statement below describes the Service’s developing comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge, and how we are approaching future management given the effects of environmental change to this very dynamic barrier island ecosystem.  Our goal is to manage the refuge in a way that ensures: (1) its conservation purpose is achieved and maintained over the long term; (2) the public continues to have reasonable, appropriate, and compatible access; and (3) we make responsible decisions about how we utilize taxpayer dollars.  In making our management decisions we also recognize the important role of the refuge for local communities.

Background

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 for the protection and management of migratory birds, especially migrating and wintering waterfowl.  Wildlife abounds at Chincoteague.  Its barrier beaches, wetlands, and maritime forests provide habitat for more than 320 different species.  The refuge is considered a birding hot spot by the Audubon Society and has been designated a globally important bird area by the American Bird Conservancy.  The refuge supports Delmarva fox squirrel, piping plover, Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles, and seabeach amaranth, all of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chincoteague is one of the most visited national wildlife refuges in the nation.  It draws as many as 1.4 million visitors each year, and this influx of people is enormously important to the local tourism economy.  The refuge sits adjacent to Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Parks Service (NPS).  To help accommodate visitors to the refuge, the NPS, through a Memorandum of Understanding, manages public use along a one mile portion of the barrier beach at Tom’s Cove.  The NPS maintains a visitor contact station, restrooms, bathhouses, showers, pedestrian trails, and a lifeguard-protected swimming beach.

Assateague Island, like all coastal barrier islands, is composed of unstable sediments that are vulnerable to storm damage and chronic erosion from wind and waves.  Assateague Island is located at the interface of land and sea and serves as a first line of defense against the strong winds, huge waves, and powerful storm surges that accompany nor’easters and hurricanes.  The exposure to wind, wave, and tidal energy keeps this coastal barrier in a state of constant flux, losing sand in some places and gaining it in others.  The current recreational beach and facilities of the refuge are located in one of the most dynamic areas of the island, which places them under constant threat of damage from flooding and erosion.  The effects from environmental change on national wildlife refuges are not isolated to Chincoteague.  The effects are being realized all along the Atlantic Coastline, including, for example, at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.

Over the years, storms and their accompanying extreme high tides have repeatedly washed out the recreational beach parking lots at the refuge.  The Service and NPS have relocated the beach parking lots further to the west as they have been washed out.  For example, the parking lots shown in the attached photo from 1990 (Exhibit A) were repeatedly overwhelmed by strong storms throughout the 1990s.  They have since been relocated.  Exhibit B shows the location of the current shoreline in relation to the parking lots from the 1990s.  As you can see, those parking areas are now completely underwater.

In the early 1990s, the Service developed a Master Plan for the refuge that is comparable to the comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) being developed today.  At that time, as today, the beach parking lots were a major issue and the Service foresaw the eventual total loss of the land base where these parking lots are presently located.  Anticipated and predicted loss of beach parking was addressed in the Master Plan as follows: 

[The Service will] continue private vehicle beach access as long as beach parking areas remain, and allow the National Park Service to maintain the existing number of parking spaces (961) as long as the land base directly behind the dunes remains, realizing that this area will eventually be lost due to the natural movement of the barrier island. As natural forces reduce the land base capable of supporting the current parking, the number of spaces will be reduced accordingly. As spaces are lost, an alternative means of transportation such as a shuttle system will need to be used in order to maintain beach use.

During the 20 years since the Master Plan was finalized, annual storm events and wave action impacted the man-made dune system between the parking lots and ocean. In the mid 1990s the NPS removed the dune system, which was restricting the growth of the beach and causing the swimming beach to become narrower. A rising ocean and coastal storms have contributed to the loss of parking lot areas and beach.  The parking lots built as replacements have been repeatedly destroyed and the government has expended considerable funding to rebuild parking lots only to see them damaged again.

In 2009, the parking lots were totally destroyed by a November nor’easter and the area repeatedly over-washed that winter, preventing the NPS from rebuilding the parking lots until the spring.  In 2011, Hurricane Irene totally destroyed the parking lots again, and they will be rebuilt again this spring.  Repairing these parking lots costs taxpayers between $200,000 and $700,000 per event. 

Continuing to invest in rebuilding parking lots in the same location only to watch them be destroyed and washed away raises a number of important questions, including:  Is this good public policy and a responsible use of federal funds?  Are these investments sustainable?  Is there a better way to provide recreational beach opportunities to the public that is both fiscally-sound and provides longer-term viability?  These are key questions that the Service has posed to the public and hopes to address through the current comprehensive conservation planning process for the refuge.  We are confident that we can provide visitors with recreational beach access and provide sound public policy in the use of appropriated operational funding.  It is our duty as public servants to be fiscally responsible in the management of these important conservation and wildlife areas. 

Comprehensive Conservation Plan

The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, requires the Service to develop a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for each unit of the Refuge System by October 9, 2012.  Each CCP is intended to describe desired future conditions of a refuge; provide long-range guidance and management direction to achieve the conservation purposes of the refuge, refuge policy requirements, and the mission of the Refuge System; and support compatible wildlife-dependent public uses on the refuge.

Beach parking and public access, and how they are affected by sea level rise and erosion, are some of the most important management issues being addressed in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge CCP.  In addition, the CCP is being developed through an open and transparent public process that provides extensive opportunity for input from the local community and the American public. 

In 2010, the Service began a scoping process to gather public input and identify key issues and concerns to consider at the refuge as part of the CCP process.  Since then, the Service has held nine public meetings or open houses.  We also held four workshops with our state and municipal government agency partners, as well as other federal agencies.  These included: April 2011, when we jointly developed CCP vision and goals; June 2011, when we jointly developed alternatives; and, December 2011, when we met to refine alternatives and resolve outstanding issues.  Three planning update newsletters that requested public input and comments were published on the refuge’s website.  Refuge staff have given dozens of presentations to community groups, hosted tours, and given interviews to keep the public informed and to solicit public input throughout the CCP process.  The opportunities for public input to help shape the refuge’s CCP have been numerous, and we are committed to maintaining an open and transparent process as we move forward.

At the current stage in the process, we have not yet finalized a draft CCP, nor identified a preferred alternative.  However, in August 2011, we released four potential alternatives for public consideration.  These alternatives present different management scenarios that could be implemented to meet the purposes of the refuge.  While it is unusual for the Service to seek public comment prior to development of a preferred alternative and draft CCP, we decided to do so because we anticipated an unusually high level of interest from the public.

In December 2011, the Service met with representatives from the town of Chincoteague, Accomack County, the National Park Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is located nearby at Wallops Island), the State of Virginia, the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, and Volpe Transportation Center to review the comments received to date regarding the initial draft alternatives.  As a group we revised the alternatives.  We are now considering three alternatives, which are outlined in more detail in an addendum to this statement.  Common parts of all three draft alternatives are: a recreational beach, parking adjacent to the beach, off-site parking to supplement adjacent beach parking and to serve as emergency back-up parking, and an alternative transportation system.

These three alternatives will be included in the forthcoming draft CCP and environmental impact statement, which the Service plans to release for public review and comment this year.  The final CCP should be complete in the summer of 2013.
           
Offsite Parking and Alternative Transportation

Throughout the ongoing CCP process, and consistent with the direction given in the refuge’s original Master Plan, the Service has pursued the acquisition of offsite parking at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Offsite parking will ensure continued access to the refuge for the visiting public in case of short-term parking lot washout events, as well as potentially long-term flooding from sea level rise and inundation.

Regardless of the alternative selected in the CCP process, the Service believes it is prudent to provide offsite parking at the refuge in case the current beach parking is completely destroyed by an intense storm.  This scenario was realized just before the busy 2011 Labor Day holiday, when Hurricane Irene swept up the coast of Virginia the week before one of the busiest tourist days of the year.  While Service and NPS staff worked tirelessly to restore as much parking as possible, only one-third (350 spaces) of the parking could be restored in time for the holiday.  Thankfully, a local non-profit group scrambled to create a shuttle system for visitors.  Providing parking for these emergency situations is a priority for the Refuge.

To address the long-term sustainability of parking as well as emergency needs, in the 1990s the Service attempted to negotiate the purchase of 200 acres of land owned by the Maddox family in the town of Chincoteague near the refuge’s entrance.  While that effort was unsuccessful, the refuge has maintained its interest in purchasing this land since that time.

In 2008 and 2009, the Service, with the Assateague Island National Seashore, the town of Chincoteague, and Accomack County, worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center on an alternative transportation study at the refuge.  The study objectively analyzed different ways to address transportation-related problems, including beach access, traffic, and parking.  Key planning documents for the town of Chincoteague and Accomack County specify similar transportation planning objectives, such as reducing traffic congestion, facilitating forming and operating alternative transportation, and improving emergency management and transportation safety.

Independent of, but coincidental to, the ongoing development of the refuge’s CCP, in 2010 the Maddox family approached the Service to express their interest in selling the property.  The Service recognized the need to move quickly to take advantage of the important opportunity.  Based upon the analysis in the alternative transportation study, and the direction given in the refuge’s 1992 Master Plan, the Service entered into an agreement to purchase the property in May 2011.  Also in May 2011, the Service applied for a Federal Transportation Administration Sarbanes Transit in the Parks grant to help fund acquisition of a portion of the land.  The Federal Transportation Administration announced an award for $1.5 million toward purchase of the property on January 17, 2012.  The Service has applied for additional grants to help secure the total cost of $7.5 million for the property. 

Although the Service considered acquisition of the Maddox family property in the 1992 Master Plan, the Service believes additional review of the acquisition is appropriate under the National Environmental Policy Act.  Acquiring this land was not initially intended to be part of the CCP process; however, the Service will evaluate acquisition of offsite parking with the environmental impact statement for the CCP. 

Conclusion

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remains committed to an open and transparent public process as we continue to develop the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge CCP.  We will continue to have a healthy dialogue with the public about the future management of the refuge, and be responsive to the needs and interests of the local community.

As we continue our discussions with the public, we believe it will become even more apparent that the Service and the local community share the same values – conservation of the species and habitat at Chincoteague, safe and sustainable public recreational opportunities, and a vibrant and healthy local economy.  As the refuge and the community are impacted by sea level rise, beach erosion, and the effects of continued storm damage, it is imperative that we work closely together to plan for the continued management of the refuge, for the benefit of both wildlife and people. 

Last updated: January 10, 2013