CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Va. – A sign at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visitor center here states a simple motto: "Where Wildlife Comes First." But many visitors never see the sign, or much wildlife. Cars stream past the center on hot summer days, headed for a mile-long public beach at the refuge's southern end. The prime goals are sand, surf, and a parking spot close to the water.

But sea-level rise threatens the refuge's future as a beach destination. It's on Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland. The whole island is protected as a national seashore, but different parts have diverse missions. Most of the Virginia section is a wildlife refuge except for the beach, an enclave run by the National Park Service. The refuge draws up to 1.5 million visitors every year through the adjacent town of Chincoteague. In a survey conducted by the town last year, 80 percent of visitors rated going to the beach as their top priority.

The beach is broad, clean, and unspoiled by development. It's also in one of the most-exposed zones of the island, and often floods during storms. When this happens, as it did during a 2009 nor'easter and again in 2011 during Hurricane Irene, the adjacent parking lots are washed out and have to be rebuilt. Even though they're surfaced with loose sand and shells, rebuilding is expensive – up to $700,000 per episode. Managers have preserved the lots, big enough for 960 cars, by repeatedly moving them west, away from the ocean side of the island, after washouts. Zones that used to be parking areas in the 1990s are now underwater.

The National Park Service has advised the Fish and Wildlife Service to move the recreation zone north to a more protected area. "We understand that the town of Chincoteague's economic viability is linked to beach parking," said Trish Kicklighter, superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore. "But you need to let the dunes act natural and move back when they want to. The current area is not wide enough to maintain a parking lot and a swimming beach."

Barrier islands are naturally unstable, constantly changing shape under the forces of waves and wind. When storms flood the east, or ocean, side of Assateague, they wash sand over to the west side of the island and build it up. But as sea levels rise, floods are becoming more frequent and severe. The Fish and Wildlife Service projects that by 2100 rising seas will flood large sections of the Chincoteague refuge's coastal marshes.

Fish and Wildlife is writing a new 15-year management plan for the refuge, igniting a battle over the fate of the beach. Instead of spending more money to maintain a vulnerable parking lot, the agency would move the beach north and build new parking, possibly supplemented by a shuttle from a new satellite lot on Chincoteague.

Local officials oppose these ideas. Before 1962, when a bridge was built connecting the town of Chincoteague to Assateague Island, Chincoteague was a sleepy fishing community. Now the town is a tourist gateway, with seashore visitors pumping $TK million into the town annually, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service estimate. Local officials want the beach preserved at all costs.

Chincoteague Mayor John Tarr and local business owners argue that moving the beach or shifting even partly to public transit will drive visitors to more convenient locations like Ocean City, Maryland to the north or Virginia Beach to the south. "I feel we are being railroaded into less or no parking at the beach, and forced to ride a trolley system in the future," Tarr told a House Natural Resources subcommittee at a hearing last February.

Instead they want federal agencies to add a new parking lot with 300 more spaces and bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to do beach restoration, such as pumping sand from offshore to rebuild the beach. Federal managers oppose engineering solutions because they conflict with laws and policies that called for letting natural shoreline processes occur without intervening.

Chincoteague's beach-inside-a-refuge situation may be unique, but rising sea levels will affect all of the 167 national wildlife refuges that are located along U.S. coastlines. "No one really knows what the solution is yet – we're still experimenting with strategies to make refuges more resilient, and it's specific to each refuge," said Noah Matson, vice president for climate change and natural resource adaptation at Defenders of Wildlife.

Some Atlantic coast refuges are already taking steps to offset flooding and habitat loss from rising seas. At Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore, managers have sprayed dredged mud into flooded marshes to build up sediment beds, then planted grasses to re-vegetate the zones. At North Carolina's Alligator River Refuge, Fish and Wildlife has partnered with the Nature Conservancy to plant salt-tolerant trees and build oyster reefs offshore to buffer the coastline.

Fish and Wildlife expects to choose a preferred strategy for the Chincoteague refuge by December, with more public input to follow. All three options on the table include a recreational beach and adjacent parking, plus supplemental off-site parking and some form of alternative transportation system.

"The community wants nothing to change, but that can't happen," said Matson, "We need to be clear about coastal geology. Barrier islands are naturally dynamic, and hard engineering solutions like seawalls and jetties make erosion worse. They're also very expensive – we can't afford solutions like that on a large scale."

Refuge manager Lou Hinds acknowledges that no other issue is as controversial as the fate of the beach. "It's not just an issue for the refuge – it affects the entire Delmarva Peninsula."

That concern may be an opportunity to connect short-term debates about maintaining the beach with longer-term steps to preserve the refuge for both people and wildlife, Hinds added. "We'll be doing lots of planning and lots of education." is a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at

Assateague Island National Seashore: