(July 31, 2020) Assateague Island National Seashore has seen a significant increase in visitors this summer.
In a previous interview, Superintendent Hugh Hawthorne guessed that this might be a result of the covid-19 pandemic and health officials encouraging outdoor activities rather than indoor.
According to Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education, the Bayberry Drive traffic counter in the Maryland district recorded 67,203 vehicles for approximately 194,889 visitors in June.
Last June, there were 53,082 vehicles counted for approximately 153,938 visitors.
So far in July, the park has counted 73,327 vehicles for approximately 212,648 people. Last July, there were 64,562 vehicles for approximately 187,230 people.
Davis said that having thousands of more visitors this summer has increased litter along the roads and trash on the beach.
“This refuse may be ingested by horses or other terrestrial wildlife or end up in the ocean and bays waters and negatively affect marine life,” Davis said. “We need every visitors to be a good steward of nature and recreate responsibly. By protecting our precious natural resources, we protect ourselves.”
Walt West, chief law enforcement ranger, said that the park doesn’t close due to capacity.
He said that on weekend, the over the sand vehicle zone typically reaches its 145-vehicle capacity by 6 a.m.
The Maryland district side of the park has 766 day-use parking spaces, not including campgrounds.
“The problem is finding enough space for those vehicles waiting in line to access the OSV zone, the queue,” West said. “That capacity is approximately 65 vehicles. The wait time to access the OSV zone can exceed three hours.”
He added that the traffic has been backed up on Route 611, across the Verrazano Bridge and back to the South Point Road intersection – about three miles.
West said this traffic causes problems for emergency response vehicles.
“Rangers pre-plan for emergency response on a daily basis,” West said. “We evaluate the traffic load and determine the best method to bring an ambulance to a patient. For days with extreme visitation, rangers may have a responding ambulance stage off-island and they would deliver the patient to that location.”
He said these calls are usually for water-related emergencies or medical events.
For visitors thinking about visiting the park, Davis recommended arriving before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. to avoid traffic and crowds. Those who want to access the over the sand vehicle zone should arrive before 6 a.m. on weekends.
“As always, keep all food and belongings secured away from the wild horses and other wildlife at all times while at Assateague,” Davis said.
In other news for the park, U.S. Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act last week to provide $9.5 billion over five years to the parks.
This will address backlogged maintenance needs in the National Park Service. It will also provide permanent funding at $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Superintendent Hawthorne said it was too early to know which projects would be funded at Assateague, but that there are a number of road, transportation and infrastructure projects that could be eligible.
“Parks, including Assateague, will be looking at projects and needs which we can submit, as the National Park Service and Development of Interior develop the process for distributing this funding,” Hawthorne said. “We anticipate that the NPRA [National Park Restoration Act] will help us improve access, safety and visitor enjoyment over the next few years and help us preserve our outstanding resources for future generations.”
Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) voted against the act.