03/05/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Seashore Accommodation

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia coast is one of the nation's most popular wilderness destinations, so why is its mission threatened by nearby commercial interests who profit from their proximity?

You need to know the Refuge's statutorily defined purpose to understand the apparent paradox. The law requires first and foremost that wildlife refuges retain their natural integrity for the future enjoyment of the American people. Commercial exploitation officially must take a back seat to the preservation of wildlife and its habitat. This creates a tension in many communities that are adjacent to public lands and primarily dependent on the use of such largely undeveloped terrain for their livelihood. They tend to feel that contiguousness entitles them to a greater say than their fellow landowners (the general public) in managing the refuge or national park. Consequently, it is often traumatic when they are reminded that though proximity gives them more ready access to public lands, it does not exempt them from the regulations governing everybody else.

The 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge derives its name from the quaint little town at its border. The town's main industry is tourism revolving around the Refuge, with the wildlife sanctuary's spectacular pristine beach the major recreational attraction during the summer months. During that time, the town merchants tend to view the Refuge more as a beach resort than a nature preserve. But again, under the law (and thankfully so), the Refuge was created primarily to preserve a natural ecosystem, regardless of the season. The law requires that human activity within the confines of the wildlife sanctuary must be compatible with the primary purpose of the refuge.

These two conflicting views of the Refuge's priorities are the obvious source of friction between the town and the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service (USFWS) which manages the sanctuary.
What ultimately will force the community to give ground is the reality that the Refuge sits on a barrier island. Barrier islands naturally migrate towards the mainland, inexorably driven by the tides and oceanic storms. Rising sea levels linked to global warming have accelerated the process at the Refuge. Without repeated (and costly) sand replenishment, the Refuge beach prized by the town would recede rapidly towards the mainland (bay) side of the island. That is the natural process which the USFWS is mandated to perpetuate. Artificially maintaining the beach at the town's behest has prevented a silt buildup on the backside of the island and thus led to erosion of the island's width at that location.

How can the preservation of the Refuge be reconciled with the town's economic needs?

The USFWS' proposed solution is to relocate the recreational beach a mile and a half to the north where the barrier island is more stable, and hence more resistant to the elements.

Community leaders are not happy. The new location would not be as convenient for beachgoers and would require a shuttle system to replace cars in accessing the beach when a visitor overflow occurred.

The town needs to be careful not to kill its proverbial "Golden Goose."

Closer scrutiny shows most Refuge visitors come for both beach and the nature viewing experience. Even the majority of those present solely for the recreational beach admit they chose to do so for the island's unspoiled tranquil beauty (in contrast to heavily commercialized Ocean City 30 miles to the north where honky-tonk development lines a noisy, crowded beach). Indeed, Ocean City serves as a cautionary tale. Chincoteague merchants sometimes sound like they want to emulate that major commercialized play land city, in which case they would lose the singularity that makes their community one of the most unique and enticing spots along the Atlantic seaboard.

The Refuge is a special place, and the town will have to compromise to keep it that way, just like all towns bordering special wilderness places need to modulate their entrepreneurial ambitions.