- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Md. — The wild ponies and deer on Assateague Island are usually left alone to munch on grass this chilly time of year. Since February, though, they’ve shared the island with bulldozers and work trucks giving an extreme makeover to the animals’ home.

The dunes at Assateague State Park have been torn down and rebuilt farther inland. When work is complete by the end of April, the dunes will be up to 75 feet back from where they started along a stretch about a mile long.

Standing near the new dunes, a state contractor who worked on the project said visitors won’t notice the dunes have been moved. But if they hadn’t been, Lance Fisher said, the state park and its animal residents would be in serious danger.

“You’ve got to have these to protect the animals. Otherwise, you’d have a bad storm and water would cover the whole island,” said Mr. Fisher, who works for MARCOR Remediation Inc., and oversees the work from a Salisbury, Md., office.

Beach replenishment is a routine exercise on barrier islands, especially the resort town just north of here, Ocean City. The Assateague job, though, wasn’t planned until a series of storms last year left the island with almost no beach beyond the dunes.

Hurricane Ernesto last September largely spared Maryland any serious property damage, but the Assateague dunes weren’t so lucky. At least two nor’easters in the winter compounded the damage.

Pointing to a spot where the dunes once stood, project manager Dwayne Austin said, “You could stand on the top of that dune and look straight down 10 feet and see the ocean.”

The state is spending almost $700,000 on the Assateague dune project, which requires about 29,000 cubic yards of sand, much of it trucked in from Delaware. The dune reconstruction will be done in time for this summer’s beach season, when people camp on 350 sites just steps inland from the dunes.

“The water came right up to the dunes. It would just wash them away until eventually the whole campground was under water,” Mr. Austin said.

The repairs won’t be complete until next winter, when the state replants grasses on the new dunes. Because the grasses can be planted only when they’re dormant in the winter, there wasn’t time to replace those by the tourist season, said Jordan Loran, director of engineering and construction for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“The grasses help to hold the sand in place” and prevent it from blowing away, Mr. Loran said.

Opinions are mixed on the usefulness of dune repairs and beach-replenishment projects. Barrier islands, such as Assateague and Ocean City, naturally shift over time. Dune reconstruction and beach replenishment are done to protect manmade structures, not the island. Scientists say there’s little to be done to prevent an island from changing shape.

“It’s kind of a losing battle. I mean, you’re never going to win against the waves and the ocean,” Mr. Fisher said. Similar projects on Chincoteague Island in Virginia have largely been abandoned, he said.

To replicate nature as much as possible, surveyors took measurements of every single dune along the mile-long stretch. Shown as black elevation lines on charts, the old dunes are being replicated to the inch farther inland.

The track marks from the bulldozers and trucks that shipped in the sand won’t be noticeable after a few days of normal winds. And the wild animals have paid almost no attention to the changing of their front dunes at Maryland’s only oceanfront park.

“We haven’t gotten any complaints,” Mr. Fisher joked. “The animals pretty much kept out of the way.”

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