Giving nature a hand

Assateague project: Restoring barrier island poses questions of natural disruption, cost, benefits.

May 26, 2001

LONG BEFORE Noah built his ark, man was grappling with how to live with nature.

Nowhere is it more complicated than in our efforts to preserve nature through artificial means. Consider the dilemma at Assateague Island, where the government plans Herculean measures to protect that sand barrier from natural forces.

Ocean waves and winds incessantly move the sands of Assateague, slowly thinning the 37-mile-long island and pushing it closer to the mainland.

The National Park Service plans to dredge millions of cubic yards of sand from offshore to widen a five-mile stretch of the beach. Work on the $43 million project is to begin this fall, "to restore the integrity of island," a park official explains.

But restoring the fragile island by dumping tons of sand atop it risks destroying the natural features now there, including rare species. Not to mention damage to the ecosystem of the shoals and bottoms that are to be mined for the sand fill.

Park officials insist the aim is not to protect mainland properties from the ocean by reinforcing the island barrier. They want to restore the island's sand that has been unnaturally eroded by a stone jetty since 1935. That jetty, built by the Corps of Engineers, protects the inlet that separates Assateague from Ocean City. It's important for coastal fishing, boating and recreation.

Preserving Assateague Island National Seashore, established 35 years ago, as an outstanding, publicly accessible example of barrier island ecology is a worthwhile goal.

But what will be preserved (and destroyed) by this venture? Nature will wash away the island over time, perhaps sooner with a major storm. Is the continuing preservation worth the effort and money?

Managing nature is not uncommon on Assateague. Rare plants are removed to a greenhouse and the island's famous wild horses are kept at sustainable levels by contraceptive drugs. The challenge is to find accommodation with nature, not to try to dominate it.

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