- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Md. | 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 their trucks on the beach are numbered.

“It’s a great family tradition,” 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. “I just think eventually access will be limited so much we won’t be out here. 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,” explains Howard Quillen of nearby Berlin, vice president of the Assateague Mobile Sportfishermen’s Association, once called the Assateague Beach Buggy Association.

More than 5,000 beach driving permits are sold at Assateague each year, most of them for day use only.

Mr. Quillen spent countless weekends in his family’s camper on Assateague as a child. Now, he fears that even strict regulations on where vehicles can go may not prevent a ban on over-sand driving before his five children are grown.

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 report last year, the group noted “significant erosion” to Assateague caused by over-sand vehicles.

The association 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.

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

“There are those that believe (off-road vehicle) use on a national seashore is totally inappropriate,” said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which joined the Audubon Society and other groups in the Hatteras lawsuit.

The Hatteras lawsuit did not seek a full ban on cars on the beach. But for Mr. Quillen and other automobile campers who line up on Assateague on busy summer weekends, fishing poles planted in the sand, environmental complaints could bring an end to summers spent camping in the “bullpen,” an area set up for overnight car use at Assateague.

“The lifestyle of this area,” Mr. Quillen warned, “will cease to exist.”

Assateague managers for the National Park Service have just started work on a management plan for the next 15 years of the national seashore. Park Superintendent Scott Bentley said there are no plans to ban driving on the beach, but he concedes that some would like to see the trucks and vans gone.

“The off-road vehicle tradition has been a tradition since long before the park service was ever around,” Mr. Bentley said.

“We don’t allow folks to just drive anywhere or do anything. It’s highly regulated,” with jail time possible for habitat destruction or egregious bad driving on the shoreline, he said.

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 entire Virginia side of the beach is off limits to drivers because of plover nesting.

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

Over-sand vehicles, Mr. Bentley conceded, “do impact the island. The question is, whether it is enough to impair the resources. The verdict is out on that.”

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