save cumberland
Wild Horses of Cumberland Island by David Hawkins
The Wild Horses of Cumberland Island National Seashore, GA

Among my most cherished memories as a kid growing up in western Pennsylvania is a series of summer treks to the New Jersey shore. Reflecting on these memories, it’s evident that from my earliest days I found the attraction of the land-sea boundary instinctive and insistent – a place where some of nature’s most beautiful, dynamic, and, at times, powerful and destructive forces could be witnessed.

This deep-rooted allure has been a dominant factor in the trajectory of my entire seventy years on earth. For the past four decades I’ve lived and labored in coastal Georgia as a resident of Saint Simons Island. Over these 40 years I’ve worked in environmental planning and conservation of Georgia’s dazzling coast. In retrospect, it’s now evident that my childhood fascination with the natural features of coastal areas fundamentally shaped adult decisions determining my place of residence as well as my life’s work.

Saint Simons is one a chain of barrier islands along Georgia’s coast. Barrier islands are the products of wind and water shaping sand, soil, and vegetation over vast periods of time – though relatively brief by geological standards. Interceding between the ocean and the mainland, these islands serve as “barriers” which, together with tidal marshlands, protect landward areas from the destructive forces of the wind-driven waves of major storms.

Georgia has eight major barrier islands, only three of which are developed, having causeway access. (Note: Sea Island and Saint Simons are considered as one barrier formation in this description.)

Among the world’s most majestic examples of the raw beauty of barrier islands, and Nature’s “crown jewel” of the east coast, is Georgia’s Cumberland Island – one of America’s few congressionally designated National Seashores. Cumberland is also remarkable as the largest barrier island in the northern hemisphere, and yet among the least developed.

Despite the relentless urbanization that has overtaken much of the American coastline, Georgia’s coast – generally more by default than by design – has remained relatively undisturbed. Nowhere is our coast and its stunning beauty better preserved in its natural state than at Cumberland Island – which is the direct result of extensive conservation efforts and considerable taxpayer commitment since the early 1970s. I estimate that well over $100 million has been wisely invested in acquiring and protecting Cumberland Island as a national seashore for the lasting fulfillment of this and future generations.

Cumberland provides the rare experience of witnessing undisturbed nature, a breathtaking exposure to primordial coastal ecosystems as they’ve existed for thousands of years. These complex barrier-island ecosystems, including both beaches and maritime forests, serve as habitat and nesting areas for a diverse array creatures – from sea turtles to shore birds and mammals such as mink, raccoons, and otters.

The unique natural asset of Cumberland Island is so treasured for its uncommonly pristine qualities that it’s attracted millions of visitors from across the nation and well beyond. Primitive camping sites are available, accommodating overnight stays and luring thousands of return enthusiasts yearly.

In establishing the National Seashore, a few patches of privately owned land were left intact. These “legacy properties” are to revert to public ownership over time. But some 1,000 acres remain in “fee-simple” ownership – and that now raises the ominous prospect of development activities that, if permitted, would fundamentally impair the celebrated natural splendor of Cumberland.

In December of last year the Camden County Planning Commission considered an application for a “hardship variance” to allow a group of Cumberland Island property-owners and family members to use 87 acres on the island to create a 10-lot subdivision. That area, zoned “conservation- preservation,” is less than a quarter-mile from the Sea Camp ferry dock, where nearly all visitors arrive from the mainland. Even though the applicants failed to meet all five variance requirements, their request was granted by the county planning commission.

Since then, the threat of development on Cumberland has intensified, as county officials now consider a proposal to rezone all 1,000 acres of the island’s fee-simple property. If such a proposal were adopted, the consequences would forever extinguish the extraordinary experience of being in this coastal wilderness. Moreover, such allowance would brazenly contradict congress’s intent when designating Cumberland Island a National Seashore.

It would be both shameful and irresponsible to allow the hard-won and costly national struggle for Cumberland’s protection to be negated by a careless local-government decision made in disregard of national conservation priorities.
Just as U.S. citizens wouldn’t tolerate such threats to Yosemite or Yellowstone – comparable national assets – we must not abide the despoiling of Cumberland’s uniquely profound beauty. Imagine arriving at Cumberland by ferry to witness the horrifying offense of chainsaws, heavy equipment, and falling oaks instead of hearing only the revitalizing tranquility of birdcalls and ocean breezes.

Resolutely defending the promise and longstanding intent to protect Cumberland against such development honors our national identity and our word.  It would be appalling and demoralizing if we allowed this glorious gem of Georgia’s coast to be stripped of its enchantment.  The serene experience of Cumberland must not be debased by the destructive disturbance of more residents, more buildings, and more vehicles.

If we’re truly committed to safeguarding places of exceptional natural beauty, surely we will hold Cumberland Island sacrosanct. The opportunity to experience one of America’s most magnificent places must not be lost to this and future generations.

As Americans and Georgians we must reassert our conviction that such revered natural treasures must not be irreversibly degraded in the misguided pursuit of private objectives benefitting a few at the expense of the many. Development of Cumberland Island must be prevented by opposing the rezoning of any portion of the thousand acres of remaining private inholdings.

Cumberland guardians should voice concerns by contacting Camden officials via the clerk’s office, email: [email protected]. All concerned are urged to attend a rally in St. Marys on June 24. For further information, go to Facebook.com/SaveCumberlandIsland, hashtag #SaveCumberlandIsland.

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Image: Wild Horses of Cumberland Island by David Hawkins via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
David Kyler

David Kyler

Executive Director at Center for a Sustainable Coast.