ASSATEAGUE ISLAND - This windswept ribbon of sand is wasting away, starved by the rock jetty that keeps Ocean City's inlet open for the beach resort's multitude of boaters.
Assateague National Seashore has taken such a pounding from the Atlantic Ocean that coastal geologists warn that one wicked nor'easter could begin the breakup of the northern end of this 37-mile-long island, home to world-famous herds of horses and more than 300 species of birds.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service have come up with a plan to stave off the inevitable by pumping sand from an offshore shoal onto a 5-mile stretch of beach. But they have taken flak on one side from environmentalists who argue that the $43 million project would damage habitat for endangered species of plants and birds on the island, and on the other side from homeowners on Sinepuxent Bay, who say the project doesn't do enough to protect their waterfront property from the ocean.
"They're spinning their wheels out there," says Robert Vanderhook, who can see over the flattened island to the ocean from his home in Snug Harbor. "What they're going to do is nothing to Mother Nature."
His house and those of others on the fast-developing inland-bay shoreline sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage during storms in 1993 and 1998, when the ocean raced across Assateague and flooded their communities.
"I'd like to see a wall 20 feet high, but that ain't gonna happen," says Vanderhook.
But coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey Jr., a longtime critic of beach replenishment projects, says pumping new sand on top of an existing beach "kills everything."
"The birds disappear," says Pilkey, a Duke University professor. "They go down in number, and you don't know how long they take to recover."
Maryland officials say that widening the beach is critical if the tiny state park on the northern end of the island is to survive.
"The dune there is not high enough or wide enough to withstand any kind of storm," says Rick Barton, superintendent of state forests and parks.
"Assateague is arguably our best state park. When you go there, it's easy to appreciate the significance of the barrier island. It's a very unique and fragile piece of the natural world, and if we don't do this project, people won't be able to go there much longer."
The project, which is to start in September, isn't designed to stymie nature, or to protect homeowners on the inland bays, says Carl Zimmerman, head of resource conservation for the National Park Service here. "This is intended to mitigate for past, man-made impacts," he says. "We're trying to restore the integrity of the island."
The inlet connecting the Atlantic with the inland bays was created by a 1933 storm. That water passage led to Ocean City's development boom - and was the beginning of Assateague's demise.
A jetty was built in 1935 to keep the inlet from filling in with the sand that normally is carried south with ocean currents. But the project, which preserved access to the Atlantic for recreational and commercial fishermen, robbed the northern end of Assateague of the sand it needs to survive, accelerating the island's natural rate of erosion.
Nearly 70 years later, a 6- to 8-mile stretch of the island is almost barren, and at some points is little more than 200 yards wide. With the exception of the northernmost tip, where inlet currents have piled up sand, what dunes there were are gone.
Wide washboards of sand spread toward Sinepuxent Bay like so many dried-up riverbeds. The shrubs, pines and grasses that once anchored the sand are gone, choked by the rush of salt water.
Assateague, like most barrier islands, is rolling over itself as it migrates toward the mainland. But the northern end is eroding more than twice as fast as the rest, moving 350 meters west since 1933.
While the erosion has destroyed the old vegetation on the island, it has cleared the way for new life. Park rangers have found colonies of seabeach amaranth, an endangered plant species that takes hold where other plants have washed away. Piping plovers, small, sandy-colored shorebirds threatened with extinction, have built nests a few yards above the surf line.
The project, Zimmerman says, is designed to minimize the effects on those plants and birds.
The first phase of the project would take 1.8 million cubic yards from Great Gull Bank, a shoal about four miles offshore thought to have been part of an earlier barrier island, to widen a five-mile stretch of beach by varying amounts, skirting clumps of amaranth and piping plover nests.
Dredging Great Gull Bank for sand is like "strip mining," says Pilkey. It would wreck the bank and destroy the tiny bottom-dwelling plant and animal colonies there and by extension the larger marine life that feeds on them.
But the Corps plans to take about 3 percent of the sand from a bank that has roughly 59 million cubic yards of sand. Pat Coury, the Corps project manager, says that "we're going to do it in a way to minimize the impact on the shoal and fish."
The second phase involves dredging about 145,000 cubic meters annually for 25 years from one of four shoals in Sinepuxent Bay and offshore and dropping it in the surf line near the northern end of the island to mimic sand flow.
Pilkey argues that beach restoration is a waste of time and money, sold to worried waterfront property owners by the Corps of Engineers as the answer to their erosion problems.
"We have no business nourishing a beach we're going to lose in the long term," Pilkey says. "I'm surprised the Park Service is in favor of this."
Zimmerman says the project will merely "re-create the natural sand transport that existed before the jetties were built."
But even that doesn't sit well with environmentalists, who see the project as an effort to protect mainland property owners. "There's a lot of pressure from developers to build up the island to protect the mainland properties," says Ilia Fehrer, head of the Worcester Environmental Trust. "But once you start something like this, it's never-ending. There's a continuous need for it to be replaced."
Jack Burbage, a Berlin developer with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of projects completed or under way on the Route 611 corridor from Ocean City to Assateague, says protecting his investments is "a benefit, but that isn't the primary reason" for the project. "Many years ago, the federal government forced property owners to sell their land for a national park, and when they did that, they accepted the responsibility to preserve it," he says.
Even some environmentalists support the project.
The Assateague Coastal Trust normally doesn't support beach replenishment projects, but this is "a special case," says Phyllis Koenings, the executive director.
"All they plan to do is get it to the point it would be if it weren't for the jetty, then let it erode naturally," she says. "It's a barrier island, it's rolling over and it's eventually going to move and migrate anyway. But it's too much of a national treasure to let it go so quickly."