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Friday
May062011

There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, Or a Free Day at the Beach

A recent trip to the beach became a lesson in government miscommunication and mismanagement.

Maybe some will think this is hyperbole, but it was definitely a case of government officials not being quite sure about who actually controls what, and a sad and very relevant example of the exploding growth of government.

Over Easter weekend, my family went to Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s eastern shore.  Chincoteague is the access point to the Virginia portion of the Assateague Island National Seashore, which is shared with Maryland.  Coincidentally, the visit came at the end of “National Park Week.”  This is a federal government promotion in which one of the perks is supposed to be free entry to NPS properties that normally charge admission.  

When we first tried to go to the beach, expecting it to be free, the little man in the booth — who wore the uniform of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — asked for the $8 daily admission fee.  When I inquired about fee waiver for National Park Week, he said the area was under the control of his agency and to pay up.  Since we were just planning to take a quick look at the water and come back for a longer visit the next day, we pulled a U-turn and went back into town.

The sign at the bridge between Chincoteague and Assasteague Islands.

Herein lies the problem.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does run the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, but the National Park Service runs the Assateague Island National Seashore.  It says as much on the signs on the bridge leading onto the island and on the island itself.  According to the National Park Service web site, there should have been no admission since I was going to the beach.  But, according to the apparent logic of the guy at the gate, the beach was free and I was paying to use the Fish and Wildlife Service’s road to get there.

Note that the pass expressly gives admission to the enter the refuge but is ambiguous about the beach. And watch out for the squirrels!

The Washington Post, Washington Examiner and the Chincoteague Beacon, among other news sources, previously reported the fee was waived at both the Maryland and Virginia entry points to Assateague.  The front desk at my hotel was under the assumption beach access was free but was getting reports such as mine to the contrary.  The representative of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce was also confused about what was going on.

We didn’t make a special trip to Chincoteague Island because I thought the beach access was free, and paying the fee to the Fish and Wildlife Service was not a hassle.  No charge would have been a happy coincidence, but it might have been an inconvenience for those on a more limited income who read the same articles I did and piled the kids into the Family Truckster for some cheap fun.  The real problem was that one part of the government didn’t know what the other was doing.  It begs the question as to why there are two federal agencies managing such a small amount of property in the first place.

This example should give people pause every time the federal government wants to acquire more land, and it should certainly lead to some head-scratching when it comes to the Assateague Island National Seashore.

During my visit to Chincoteague Island last summer, the big topic of discussion was the apparent desire on the part of the government to ban all non-government vehicles from the refuge and beach.  If the multiple government agencies coordinating the area cannot talk to each other about a simple promotion that is supposed to encourage visitors, how are they going to figure out a plan in which they can transport thousands of people (and their chairs, umbrellas, Frisbees and food) without hassle, discomfort or running afoul of federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act — all year and in all kinds of weather?

The people of Chincoteague Island are already suffering under government limits on how much they can fish and crab.  Take away the tourism and the island economy could die altogether.

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