Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuge

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A few photos from Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuge across the road from part of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Since the USFWS website is shuttered right now due to a silly government shutdown, here's their description of the place pulled from Google's cached version, since I have no idea when the official site might come back online:

The Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuge was created on July 10, 1975 when 373 acres of land were transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The refuge, comprised mainly of salt marsh and woodlands, is located east of Wattsville in Accomack County, Virginia and contains habitat for a variety of trust species, including upland- and wetland-dependent migratory birds. Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an agreement with NASA to use the NASA-owned portion of Wallops Island proper on a non-interference basis for research and management of declining wildlife in special need of protection. The agreement with NASA covers approximately 3,000 acres of Wallops Island proper and is primarily salt marsh. Wallops Island NWR and the agreement with NASA are administered by the staff at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

A sea-level fen, known as the Simoneston Bay sea-level fen, exist on and is protected by the refuge. Sea-level fens are nutrient-poor, maritime seepage wetlands, confined to a few sites with an unusual combination of environmental conditions for the mid-Atlantic. The fen is located just above the highest tide levels, at the base of a slope where abundant groundwater discharges. Only four occurrences are known in Virginia.

The Wallops Island NWR was opened for the first time ever to public hunting in 2002 to reduce the affects of overbrowsing by deer on refuge habitats and reduce the potential of deer collision with vehicles on the adjacent state highway 175 and neighboring flight facility.

The origin as excess, unused NASA land is similar to how the Merritt Island NWR at Cape Canaveral came about. I'm not sure coastal development pressures are quite as acute here as they are in Florida, but from the NASA standpoint it's great to have a buffer area between your launch pads and encroaching hotels and condos and so forth. The launch pads aren't protected from encroaching nature, though, as an unlucky local frog discovered during the LADEE launch.

As the USFWS description explains, this refuge is administered by the nearby Chincoteague wildlife refuge, and it doesn't have its own visitor's center or really anything in the way of developed facilities. There's just a grassy parking area and a small sign with the name of the place and some hunting and fishing regulations, and an unmarked trailhead leading off into the forest.

I stopped here on the day of the LADEE launch, as there weren't a lot of public activities that day and I had some time to kill. It basically looks like a typical coastal forest and wetland area. It probably wouldn't merit a blog post of its own if I lived in the area and saw scenery like this all the time. Still, if this isn't the sort of environment you see every day, and you're in the area anyway, it's a representative example if you want to have a quick look. Just remember to bring bug spray. I'd just purchased a new can of DEET spray but somehow forgot to put any on before wandering into the wildlife refuge, and I ended up with a few annoying bug bites. As an erstwhile South Carolina resident who really ought to know better, I found this kind of embarrassing.

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