Proposed Vehicle Tours on Protected Georgia Barrier Island Rev Up Environmental Battle
ATLANTA Cumberland Island is the largest undeveloped barrier island on the Eastern Seaboard, and about half of it is federal wilderness area, meaning visitors and National Park Service employees are supposed to hike rather than drive. But the island has a handful of permanent residents who are free to drive on the three roads.
Now members of Georgia's congressional delegation are sponsoring legislation to clear up legal ambiguity by essentially allowing motorized tours of the Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Tours run by the Park Service and an island inn have been the frequent target of litigation by environmental groups. Some environmentalists oppose the legislation, believing that lifting the wilderness designation from the roads could set a precedent for other wilderness areas.
"If you can do it here, why wouldn't you try to do it somewhere else?" said Julie Mayfield, vice president of the Georgia Conservancy.
A House subcommittee heard testimony on the legislation Tuesday in Washington.
Once a series of plantations, the island later became a stomping ground for the rich, and descendants of the Candler, Rockefeller, and Carnegie families still maintain estates on it. About 50 people live on the island year-round, and the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette was held there.
The Carnegie family donated vast tracts that formed the basis of the Cumberland Island National Seashore, designated by Congress as a federal wilderness area in 1982.
Although about half of the largely wooded island is officially considered wilderness, Cumberland is replete with a mix of historic structures and very modern buildings.
Rep. Jack Kingston, whose district includes the island, said a compromise was reached five years ago between residents and environmentalists who supported a more restricted atmosphere.
Soon, however, other environmental groups filed lawsuits.
"The problem we are having is that the environmental groups are constantly changing the goal posts," Kingston said. "You can't find the head of the snake because one group is saying something and another is saying something else."
Opponents of the latest bill have focused much of their attention on the Greyfield Inn, which has for decades operated truck tours along the island's dirt Main Road.
"This is not some new, high-tech bus tour," said Gogo Ferguson, a descendant of the Carnegie family and the inn's co-owner. Six to eight passengers are seated in the back of a pickup for a two-hour ride to the island's north end, where surviving buildings include the First African Baptist Church, site of the Kennedy wedding.
After the Montana-based Wilderness Watch sued the Park Service over the truck tours, a judge ordered the park to end its similar tours and issue a special one-year permit to the inn to continue its tours. Park superintendent Jerre Brumbelow said the managers of the inn have yet to sign the permit, insisting they don't need permission to use the road.
Critics of the legislation say visitors should see the park only on foot, even if it requires a good day's hike to reach some of the island's attractions.
"The north end is very isolated, but that's the intention," Mayfield said. "If you hiked for six hours through the wilderness and suddenly came across a van full of tourists, that diminishes your experience."
But Park Service employees are hamstrung by the wilderness designation.
"You can't afford to send a guy to hike for three days to cut a tree down," Brumbelow said. "While you're hiking there with a saw, you have 10 drivers pass you on the road. It's not real pragmatic."
The restrictions are frustrating for more than park service employees. A nonprofit group that offered to manage the Plum Orchard mansion, built more than a century ago by the Carnegie family, recently pulled out for fear it couldn't get supplies to the estate. The Park Service says visitors can reach the mansion by ferry. Brumbelow said a phone company once offered to cover the $1 million cost of installing a line along the island's main road for emergencies, but the cost would be three times that without road access.
"There's been a number of times since 1982 when the park service has said, 'Whoops, the wilderness designation was a mistake,'" Brumbelow said. "Time and again, it's like running into a brick wall."
Source: Associated Press