BEL AIR. — Bel Air -- I would like to propose a simple solution to a serious environmental problem: an open hunting season on the ponies on the Maryland portion of Assateague Island.
There will be public opposition. The Assateague ponies have one of the most effective and feared lobbies in America. A biologist working at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia told me what I assume is an apocryphal story.
He says that every year, in an attempt to find out if public attitudes are changing, he sneaks into his office on the coldest, windiest, rainiest night of the winter. Without turning on any lights, he closes himself in the supply closet, sits in the corner, pulls a tarp over his head and whispers: ''Get rid of the ponies.'' He claims that next morning there are 5,000 threatening letters on his desk, phone messages from 8 or 10 congressmen, senators and local politicians, and a memo from his boss telling ++ him to keep his mouth shut or they will both lose their jobs.
Even the NRA does not have that kind of clout.
He may be stretching the point, but I am not sure. I have heard people call radio talk shows and brag that every year they purchase a pony at the Chincoteague pony auction for the purpose of returning it to its native home. This wonderfully misguided behavior is the best indication of how passionately many people feel about the ponies.
I have no hope of getting the ponies off the Virginia portion of the island. The town of Chincoteague owes its economic existence to the ponies. Consider the pony motels, gift shops, salt-water taffy, drive-in burger joints and who knows how many businesses with Misty in the name. Misty of Chincoteague, the book and the pony that every child loves. ''Misty of Chincoteague'' may be the most environmentally damaging book ever written. The status of the ponies there has reached mythological proportions, and no one will ever be able to get rid of them.
Thank heaven, Misty does not live in Maryland, which removes a major barrier to getting the ponies off our part of the island. There are few if any Maryland businesses dependent on the herds found here, but there are a great many people who will automatically come to the ponies' defense.
There are the folks who like to drive onto the island, disobey the signs prohibiting feeding the ponies and parking on the service road, and take Instamatic pictures of the four-legged panhandlers eating cookies and sandwich remnants from the hands of small children. They think the ponies are cute. They do not think about the price we pay for those pictures.
The price is both environmental and economic. The ponies are biological pollutants. They are interlopers, introduced into a habitat they are ill suited for, a habitat that is ill suited for the intrusion.
Part of the catechism of ecological study is that it is always a mistake to introduce an organism into a habitat it is not native to. The effects ripple out in ways that are impossible to anticipate, and take years or decades to understand. Often it is too late to correct the problems. Just as often we end up spending significant tax dollars trying to compensate for the introduction.
What environmental problems have the Assateague ponies caused? First, they are grazing the island out of existence, although it will take a few centuries before they finish. The fragile grasses the ponies eat are crucial to stabilizing the sand dunes. These dunes are Assateague Island's primary defense against ocean storms.
Several times in the last year we have seen the results of these storms on the local news, but the coverage is always limited to Ocean City, presumably because of the threat to business and tourism. No reporter goes down to Assateague and reports on the damage done there, or on the money being spent to repair the island after these storms. Yet there is a significant risk that a major storm will create new inlets on the island, cutting off large parts of it to recreationists.
If you want to see the impact of the ponies, go look at one of the exclosures the park service has built on the dunes. These are fenced areas that the ponies cannot get into, and the grasses there are knee and waist high to an adult. In the surrounding area the grasses are frequently no more than an inch or two high. These heavily grazed dunes are unstable, the sand constantly being blown away, and are unable to stand in the face of storm-driven tides.
The heavy grazing by the ponies is taking its toll on the back side of the island also. The extensive marshes there also help to stabilize the island, but the marsh grasses, reeds and sedges have been eaten almost to the ground. The damage is twofold. The decaying marsh vegetation provides the material to build up new marsh, but the amount of detritus available declines when ** the plants are eaten as fast as they grow. The grazed marshes are also less stable, less able to resist the pressure of erosion.