Undiscovered America #4: Assateague
June 12, 2017
Acadia National Park celebrates the rocky coastline of Maine and Biscayne National Park the mangrove trees and coral reefs of Florida, but no National Park celebrates the remaining sandy beaches, forested coast, and tidal marshes that lie on the stretch of coast between the two parks.
When Europeans began colonizing North America, the east coast was in a mostly undisturbed state, very little of which remains today. Historic sites such as Jamestown, Roanoke, and Cumberland Island commemorate colonization but no National Park represents the natural environment that these colonists first encountered.
Off the coast of Maryland, the 37-mile long Assateague Island, along with the adjacent Chincoteague Island in Virginia, protects a large section of coastline just as the first European colonists would have seen it. These barrier islands, isolated from the mainland, show the east coast's full variety of beaches, forests, and wetlands all in one location. The wetlands slowly migrate over time as the ocean reshapes the island, and trails with elevated boardwalks extending over the marshes so visitors can closely observe native plants and animals. This includes the island’s most famous residents —its charming wild (actually feral) horses. Assateague also boasts over 300 bird species.
This area was originally slated for development similar to what has happened along the Outer Banks in North Carolina, but the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 put a stop to these plans. Most existing structures on the island were destroyed, including the former roads which can be seen heavily damaged along several trails. The storm left Assateague a second lease on life and the the lands were sold to the federal government.
Assateague is currently a National Seashore which is one of the the two strangest and outdated National Park Service designations. There are 10 National Seashores and 4 National Lakeshores, which were all created between 1953 and 1975. These designations were largely created to create lesser-National Parks in the eastern United States without the controversy of full National Park status. Only one of these areas, Point Reyes in California, exists on the west coast because western states are much more open to National Parks.
Seashore and Lakeshore sites are all situated along America’s waterfronts and most resemble what would typically be considered recreation areas, with beaches, lighthouses, and small tourist attractions. Throughout this serieis I will argue that three of these areas (Assateague, Point Reyes, and Pictured Rocks) should be elevated to full-fledged National Parks due to their locations and unique landscapes. This would create a series of coastally themed National Parks on the east and west coasts, as well as one on the Great Lakes.