Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Restoration and Relocation Efforts

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located at the southern tip of Assateague Island, depends on parking and road facilities that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion.  Refuge managers have been exploring alternatives for responding to these impacts that they anticipate will worsen with sea-level rise and climate change. The refuge is studying alternatives to relocate parking facilities and is using oyster reefs to protect transportation facilities. Parking facilities on the island are made of loose shells and sand so as not to disrupt the natural terrain. Overwash events have destroyed the lots multiple times, and their reconstruction can cost upwards of $600,000 per event.

The island’s geography and management by two agencies are central factors in understanding the adaptation efforts underway within the refuge. Assateague Island is an uninhabited 37-mile long barrier island located on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. The 448-acre refuge lies on the Virginia end of Assateague and is a popular destination for recreation and tourism (hosting over a million visitors annually). The National Park Service (NPS) manages Assateague Island, and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) runs the refuge itself. By agreement, the NPS helps the FWS provide public recreation programs.  The NPS maintains all parking and road facilities within the refuge. The refuge is managed according to a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) formally adopted in January 2016.

Transportation facilities within the refuge include Beach Road, which provides the only access between the refuge and the neighboring island and town of Chincoteague and the only access route to and from the beach.  Facilities also include the Wildlife Loop, and four unpaved parking lots accessible via Beach Road. Most visitors access the refuge by private vehicle making transportation facilities key to the refuge’s value. These facilities have been repeatedly damaged or destroyed by chronic erosion and storm surges.  As a barrier island, Assateague’s unstable sediments are exposed to strong Atlantic winds, waves, and storms. In 2009, water damage caused by Nor’easter Ida required the complete reconstruction and westward relocation of refuge parking lots, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The storm surge also undermined the structural stability of Beach Road. This pattern has repeated itself with every major storm, most recently during Hurricane Sandy when Beach Road was nearly washed out.

As early as 1992, the refuge Master Plan (the precursor to the new CCP) acknowledged the flooding and erosion problem for transportation facilities and recommended that FWS and NPS consider purchasing off-site beach parking to compensate for parking facilities lost due to shoreline erosion. In 2009, USGS developed climate models using 1 meter and 1.5 meter sea-level rise scenarios for the region, which showed that the critical transportation infrastructure within the refuge would be at future risk of overwashes and inundation. Vulnerable assets included Route 175 (the bridge and causeway connecting Chincoteague and Assateague Islands to the mainland), and low-lying stretches of Beach Road. In 2010, the refuge developed an alternative transportation study (study) that assessed climate impacts to refuge transportation facilities and studied alternatives for adapting to impacts. In 2011, the refuge began updating the CCP. 

The “Chincoteague and Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan,” adopted January 2016, sets out the goals and objectives for managing the refuges for the next 15 years. The CCP considers climate change to be a key issue, and commits the refuge to working with partners in the region to continue assessing impacts of climate change on the peninsula. The CCP considered options from the previous alternative transportation study, and recognizing the vulnerability of current parking and beach access areas to storm events and sea-level rise, FWS decided  to relocate the parking lots 1.5 miles north within the refuge. The FWS plans to work with the NPS to analyze design options for beach relocation infrastructure, including any changes to overall footprint of parking areas, in a future separate environmental review process. The refuge will work with the NPS to manage the current parking areas and beach access until the relocated beach access area is ready. In 2011, FWS rejected a proposal to construct sand dunes as an alternative to relocation, deeming the this option as inconsistent with management policies which state that the shoreline will be maintained in its natural state without interference. The CCP also includes overall community resiliency as one of its management objectives (Objective 5.3), which commits the refuge to working with federal and other partners to continue studying the effects of climate change and identify methods to improve resiliency. For example, this includes working with coastal geologists to investigate impacts of coastal storms to determine how dune breaches and changes to infrastructure could affect habitat, infrastructure, and flood control. Additionally, Objective 7.5 states a goal to incorporate consideration of climate change and sea-level rise into decision-making and research. This objective refers specifically to transportation facilities like the vulnerable beach parking areas, but also commits the refuge to develop a process within 5 years for considering climate change into planning and design of all infrastructure changes.

The refuge has taken other efforts to mitigate impacts to transportation facilities.  NPS raised parking fees to offset the costs to repair roads and parking facilities. To offset congestion and any reductions in on-island parking, the refuge is considering a transit system and improved bicycle facilities to supplement vehicle access to the refuge. Marine transportation alternatives (such as ferry service) were explored and rejected because of cost and impacts to recreational uses and wildlife.  There was strong public objection to alternatives that would remove all on-island parking because of impacts to recreational users who rely on private vehicles to transport recreational equipment onto the island (e.g. kayaks or surf boards). Businesses in the neighboring town of Chincoteague were also concerned about loss of tourism revenue.

In the aftermath of Sandy in October 2013, the NPS and FWS received funding to construct a living shoreline-oyster reef restoration project to build two acres of oyster reefs to act as a breakwater and protect the refuge and its transportation facilities from erosion. The refuge received over $500,000 from the Department of Interior to build two acres of the oyster reef.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on January 31, 2016.


Publication Date: October 2015

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