Park Service plans to allow watercraft at Assateague Island

Ban set to start Monday is challenged

two areas expected to remain open

April 18, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

National Park Service officials are advancing a plan to continue allowing personal watercraft such as Jet Skis in two small areas of Assateague Island, despite a temporary ban on the watercraft set to go into effect Monday at Assateague and seven other parks.

The catch is that the summer season could be over before the Assateague proposal clears an elaborate federal approval process.

The agency announced a permanent ban this week on the motorized watercraft at three national seashores and two national recreation areas, including Cape Cod National Seashore and the Delaware Water Gap. Temporary bans at eight other parks, including Assateague, could be reversed if individual parks adopt their own rules.

Restrictions on the use of the craft, set to begin Monday, were challenged in a Texas courtroom yesterday by industry trade groups who charge that the government is discriminating against watercraft enthusiasts.

The Personal Watercraft Industry Association and the American Watercraft Association filed suit, hoping to block the latest ban and force the government to conduct environmental assessments at each location before declaring them off-limits.

A decision by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey, in Victoria, Texas, is expected late today or tomorrow.

"None of these bans should go forward because there's no rational basis to single out per- sonal watercraft for banning in parks that allow motorized boating," Monita Fontaine, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, said in a statement.

Environmentalists argue that the small, gasoline-powered craft can damage fragile waterfront habitats and disturb wildlife and park visitors.

"We have two lawsuits, two sets of plaintiffs, and what they want is in direct conflict," said Madoline Wallace, an environmental protection specialist who worked with a Washington consulting firm that prepared an environmental assessment for Assateague.

At Assateague two years ago, parks officials restricted the watercraft to a section just south of the Ocean City jetty and another area at the south end of the island in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Officials say they want to maintain the status quo.

"We're talking less than 1 percent of the 170,000 acres of water," said John Burns, Assateague's chief ranger. "Unless there's some new political firestorm, eventually we expect to be doing what was already in place. And we're already ahead of the pack, because the environmental assessment is pretty well completed."

Wallace said federal requirements for advertising and taking public comment on regulations, with environmental assessments, could push final approval back six months or more.

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