Establishing a beachhead for nature Assateague: Intervention needed to restore eroded dunes, preserve island's integrity.

March 05, 1998

THE IMMEDIATE remedy may be no more than a Band-Aid, but the repair of a badly eroded strip of Assateague Island is a true emergency.

The $4 million project is needed to prevent the unique barrier island from splitting into several islets through the action of ocean storms and tidal erosion.

The National Park Service, which manages the national seashore, wants to dump 350,000 cubic yards of sand on a 1.5-mile stretch that was badly damaged by recent heavy storms. It wants the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for most of the work, and to approve the project as economically and environmentally sound.

There's no guarantee that the sand-replenishment project would prevent damage for many years. It would replace much of the 5-foot-high dunes on the strip lost to storms this year, a loss that has accelerated the ocean-breaching process.

But further work would be needed to preserve the island's integrity. By one count, that would involve at least $68 million (much of it spread over 35 years) to reinforce the northern end.

A large part of that stabilization work is needed because of a federal decision 65 years ago to keep open the inlet that separates Assateague Island from Ocean City. A jetty was constructed to keep sand from filling in the inlet. But the jetty disturbed the natural flow of sand that had regularly rebuilt Assateague's beaches after storms. It resulted in, as one expert put it, "the most spectacular example of jetty-caused erosion on the East Coast."

The National Park Service sometimes favors letting nature take its course, without intervention; in other cases, it has instituted changes in nature, introducing species and cutting off access to established trails.

In this case, with much of the damage caused by the Corps of Engineers' old jetty, the call should be for restoration. A decision to stabilize Assateague Island should not be seen as blanket endorsement of beach-restoration projects along the coast. Each would have to stand on its merits. But this national treasure is worth preserving, giving back to nature what man-made structures helped to destroy.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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