Personal watercraft OK'd at Assateague

2 small areas of island to remain open to users

April 24, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND -- Personal watercraft users may be enjoying their last two summers in other national parks, but they'll retain at least a foothold here.

The small gasoline-powered boats that look like motorcycles on the water probably will be allowed continued access to the northern tip of the island and a small area near the southern end, said John Burns, chief ranger for the national seashore park.

Under a federal court agreement reached April 12, personal watercraft, also known by trade names Jet Skis, Wave Runners and Sea Doos, are to be banned in all 87 national parks by September 2002 -- unless the Park Service can prove, on a site-by-site basis, that they don't harm the environment.

An environmental assessment team is due here in mid-May to look at the impact of the craft, but it is unclear when it will issue a report.

"Barring the unforeseen -- famine, war, pestilence -- we're going to stay right where we are now," Burns said of the two areas still open to the small boats.

Personal watercraft have been under attack by environmental groups for years as dangerous pollution machines that make far too much noise, scare waterfowl and other creatures nesting in shallows and harass marine mammals.

The park service banned the craft in 66 of the 87 national parks in March 2000 and allowed the superintendents in the remaining 21 parks, including Assateague, to write their own rules.

Superintendent Mark Koenings closed almost all of Assateague's 170,000 acres of water to personal watercraft, allowing them only in the section just south of the Ocean City jetty and near a marsh at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

The federal court agreement stems from a suit filed against the park service by Bluewater Network, a West Coast conservation group, to extend the ban to the remaining 21 national parks.

The terms of that settlement will "push those parks in the direction of banning" personal watercraft, said Sean Smith, of Bluewater Network.

But Monita Fontaine, executive director of the trade group Personal Watercraft Industry Association, said she is "pretty positive" personal watercraft will fare well.

"We've reduced our hydrocarbon emissions by 75 percent in the 2001 models. We've reduced our sound emissions by 70 percent," she said. "We've done in three years what it took the auto industry 30 years to do."

On Assateague, Burns acknowledged the industry's claims for improvement but wondered if that is enough to allow him to lift the restrictions.

"They've made significant improvements," he said. "But is that enough? I don't know. We'll see."

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