Atlantic surf was breaking at his feet. A red sun, setting on a ridge of sand dunes, gave the curl of the waves an electric glow. Robert Jamison staked his surf-fishing rod upright in the sand, took a look at the wilderness around him and decided it was time for an ice-cold beer.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Jamison, 36, reaching into his cooler in the Jeep parked on the beach beside him. "If you had a camera, this would make some great commercial."

Jamison was on holiday recently from his life as an insurance adjustor in North Carolina, fishing the surf at Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia. The fish weren't interested in his bait. But Jamison wasn't complaining. He and a few other fishermen with four-wheel-drive vehicles had almost four miles of some of the remotest beach on the East Coast to themselves.

The beach at Assateague may appear tranquil, but political storms are raking the barrier island and they rival any spawned on the Atlantic. Environmentalists, birders, anglers and hikers have established rival beachheads on this famous island. And each side has called in political reinforcements, ranging from town councils to Congress.

The basic fight is over how much of the 37-mile-long island--now mostly protected by the Interior Department as a primitive beach and wildlife refuge--should be open to people with beach buggies, Jeeps and other off-road vehicles. The question has resulted in the formation of political-action groups, environmental studies and not a little name-calling.

"We're nature lovers ourselves, we like to look at birds," says Bill Shockley, president of the Assateague Sportfishermen Association, which has led the effort to open more beach for fishermen's buggies. "I just think when (opponents) see a vehicle coming down with four wheels on it, it scares them to death."

Judith Colt Johnson, head of the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island, last fall called a proposal to open more beach to four-wheelers "the worst threat to Assateague Island in years." Johnson and others opposed to four-wheel traffic on Assateague claim the vehicles will damage the beach's unusual ecosystem, including nesting areas for rare birds such as red knots and sanderlings.

If the fight began as a dispute between two groups of wildlife lovers, it has evolved into a campaign that has pitted the Interior Department's controversial Secretary James G. Watt against 13 members of Congress from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

Last month Interior added two more miles to the 16 that the four-wheel-drive group already can use on Assateague. That decision was consistent with Watt's policy of making the national parks more user-oriented.

But opponents of that decision argued that it would lead to more beach erosion and could endanger summer users of Assateague's beach. Although the four-wheelers would be granted access to the beach only during fall, winter and early spring, opponents said fish hooks lost in March might snag unintended prey in August.

In the last two decades, Assateague has been at the center of battles concerning issues such as roads, commercial development, oil-drilling rights and research piers. The fights are always spirited, partly because ownership of the island is so confused. Some of Assateague is in Virginia, the rest is off the coast of Maryland. The National Park Service has jurisdiction over some of the land; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims dominion over other parts. The island has 2 million visitors a year, not including the migratory birds that stop off periodically to loll in the island's animal refuges.

But more pertinent to its place as a major environmental battleground is the fact that Assateague includes some of the last unspoiled beach on the Atlantic Coast.

Assateague has weathered its share of storms in the last few centuries. As a barrier island, it serves as a buffer between the Atlantic and the mainland. It also has been a refuge for shipwrecked sailors and ponies.

The ponies, thought to be descendants of a herd that survived a Spanish shipwreck in the 17th century, are arguably more famous than the island itself. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department rounds up some of the ponies for a swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, where they are auctioned off.

The ponies lately have been drawn into the debate over four-wheel-drive access. Opponents of four-wheel-drive vehicles argue that an infectious and incurable equine disease could be spread to the wild-pony herd under certain conditions by the four-wheelers.

Shockley and his Sportfisherman, who number 1,400, say that fear is as groundless as many others that have been used to limit access to Assateague's beaches. They argue that without some controlled vehicular access to remote parts of Assateague, there is no practical way for fishermen or most other wildlife lovers to enjoy the island.

Last week Shockley conceded that Assateague could be damaged by irresponsible four-wheel use, but he said his organization has its own security patrols to prevent that.

"We love Assateague. We have been there as long as anyone and we want it to be there long after we're gone," said Shockley. "There's no doubt in my mind that a happy medium can be struck."