Assateague State Park Busy With Island’s Federal Side Closed By Shutdown
ASSATEAGUE — A perfect storm of sorts, including the closure of the Assateague Island National Seashore this week due to the federal government shutdown, ideal summer-like conditions and the Seagull Century bicycle tour set for Saturday, have conspired to create some confusion at the popular barrier island this week, but the Assateague State Park remains open albeit with a few caveats.
When the clock struck midnight on Monday without any progress on the impasse over the federal spending plan, driven largely by the divide over Obamacare, the federal government began a shutdown early Tuesday, including the closure of the Assateague Island National Seashore. Late Monday, Assateague Island National Seashore officials were already planning for the pending shutdown and by Tuesday morning, barriers and interactive signs warned visitors the federal park’s public facilities would remain closed until further notice. AINS Chief of Interpretation and Education Rachelle Daigneault said late Monday the federal side of the island had already begun preparations for the shutdown.
“We will shut down Bayberry Rd. leading into the park and both the Maryland and Virginia districts will be closed until there is some resolution,” she said. “Even at this time of year, we average about 7,000 visitors per day, so this is obviously a significant impact.”
Other facilities on the island are closed, including the Visitor’s Center, which averages about 700 visitors per day even in the offseason. In addition, numerous school groups were scheduled to tour the island and participate in interactive education programs this week and they were cancelled.
“We were expecting about 200 school groups this week and now they won’t be able to come,” said Daigneault. “It’s disappointing for them and it’s disappointing for us.”
Daigneault said all hunting areas are closed, as is the north-end Inlet area which is popular for boaters at all times of the year. The Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) area is closed indefinitely, as are all day-use areas and all camping areas. Daigneault said AINS officials spend much of the weekend and Monday informing campers they would have to pack up and leave. Some were informed of the pending closure even before they arrived at Assateague, but Daigneault said one bright spot is that neighboring Assateague Island State Park remains open and many of the campers will be accommodated there.
“We are very lucky in that respect that the state park will be open,” she said. “The campers will have to leave, but one bright spot is that most will be able to go over to the state park and make arrangements to camp. It’s not the busiest time of the year, obviously, but we do have quite a large number of campers. Unfortunately, many have planned their trips here for a long time and now they will be asked to leave.”
Daigneault said most of the Assateague Island National Seashore’s staff will not be working for the duration of the shutdown, but a skeleton crew will remain on the island. She said about five law enforcement officers will remain on the island, along with four maintenance personnel and one employee to keep the equipment in the Visitor’s Center aquariums up and running. She was uncertain about the exact number of employees that will be furloughed during the shutdown, but estimated it at around 40.
The closure of the Assateague Island National Seashore on Tuesday created some initial confusion about the status of the entire barrier island, but the Assateague State Park remains open and is accommodating the spillover of visitors as best as possible. Assateague Park Manager Angela Baldwin, who has worked at the facility for 16 years but took the reins just this week, is getting a baptism by fire of sorts in her new leadership position. Baldwin said Thursday the state park has been able to absorb much of the overflow from the closed federal side this week, but there have been some challenges.
“It’s working out okay so far,” she said. “There has been a lot of confusion early on about national park closure, but we’re trying to accommodate folks the best we can. We have seen a considerable increase in visitation at the state park all week.”
Baldwin said there were a few campsites available in the state park for Thursday night, but the campsites were already booked for Friday and Saturday nights. All of the day-use areas in the state park remain open, although Baldwin was warning residents and visitors Saturday will likely be hectic because of the annual Seagull Century, which includes hundreds of bicyclists cruising through Assateague. Under normal conditions, the cyclists would access both the state and federal sides, but because of the closure, the event will be concentrated in the state park.
“During the Seagull Century, we expect extreme congestion, especially between 9 a.m. and noon,” she said. “On a typical Seagull Century Saturday, there are a lot of bicycles interacting with regular visitor traffic, but with the federal side closed, we expect extreme congestion. We’re asking folks to avoid coming to the state park until later in the afternoon when the event has cleared out. Safety is our biggest concern.”
The closure of the Assateague Island National Seashore, coupled with the Seagull Century and the near-perfect weather have conspired to create summer-like conditions at the Assateague State Park. On top of that, a nice early fall swell had surfers flocking to the barrier island all week.
“Earlier in the week, the waves were perfect, and we saw a ton of surfer traffic in the park,” said Baldwin. “All of that adds up to a busy time at the park despite the time of year, but we’re managing just fine.”
Meanwhile, Daigneault said she was uncertain just how long the shutdown would last, although Park Service officials remain hopeful it will be brief.
“We in the Park Service tend to be optimistic, but it’s hard to predict,” she said. “The one thing we understood early on when this presented itself is that it would be very prudent for us to prepare for a shutdown and be proactive so that getting everybody off the federal side of the island would be timely and efficient.”
Meanwhile, Wallops Island National Spaceport on the Virginia coast just south of Assateague also closed on Tuesday as a result of the federal government shutdown. Public Information Officer Keith Koehler said the base’s employees were notified of the closure on Tuesday morning and the base was officially closed sometime Tuesday evening.