Assateague Island, and its populated sister island, Chincoteague lie just 2-1/2 hours southeast of Washington D.C., where I grew up. As a teenager, I used to travel there with friends on summer weekends. We would stay in a motel nestled among mini golf courses in Chicoteague, and then bike across a bridge that traverses the marsh to the pubic Assateague beaches in the Virginia district around Toms Cove. Once I had children, our family returned for numerous summer holidays. I have fond memories of the place, to say the least.
Much of the Atlantic seashore on the East Coast has been intensively developed — from New Hampshire to Florida. Even though barrier islands that make up much of that seashore are highly vulnerable to storms and sea level rise, the risks have been ignored and vacation homes and resorts have been built willy nilly. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia) and Assateague National Seashore and Assateague State Park (Maryland) are the exceptions.
Conservation didn’t come easily. A large chunk of Assateague in the Maryland district was slated for development in the 1960s. Developers constructed a 15-mile long avenue along the future development. Ironically, a level 5 nor’easter struck the region in March 1962, killing 40 people and destroying the road and buildings that had already been constructed on the island. Federal legislation in 1965 made it possible for conservation to go forward. Sanity prevailed.
Extending 37 miles off the coast of Virginia and Maryland, Assateague Island is best known for its feral horses -- the Chincoteague ponies -- its marshlands, pristine beaches, and spectacular, virgin dunes. These features make Assateague one of the gems of barrier island conservation on the East Coast.
Barrier islands are constantly changing, as storms shift sand in their littoral zones and engineered infrastructure interrupt natural processes. Although I have many snapshots of my kids squirming on Assateague beaches, I didn’t start seriously photographing the island until December 2015.
Over a short period of time – my most recent visit was April 2018 – I’ve seen significant changes. A southern pine beetle infestation, not usually fatal to a forest, has killed off much of the southern section of pine woodlands in the Virginia district. They became more vulnerable to the beetle due to salt water intrusion during Atlantic storms.
The federal government has undertaken some climate related research and conservation projects on Assateague and several barrier islands further south. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will continue under an Administration that regards climate change as a hoax.