Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, is one of the last and largest undeveloped barrier islands in the country. It is a National Seashore containing over 9,000 acres (approximately fifteen square miles) of designated wilderness. The United Nations has also declared Cumberland Island an International Biosphere Reserve because it provides critical habitat for rare and endangered wildlife—including loggerhead sea turtles, brown pelicans, piping plovers, least terns, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons.
Besides providing habitat for many endangered species, Cumberland Island also hosts 50,000 human visitors annually. Hikers and backpackers seek the quiet and solitude of the island’s Wilderness Area. Children climb in the arms of old-growth live oaks, and campers soak in the starlight on one of the few remaining undeveloped beaches in the Southeast.
The Cumberland Island National Seashore was formed in 1972 when the National Park Service bought lands from Carnegie heirs. These families were paid millions of dollars for their lands and also retained the right to continue living and driving on parts of the island for up to 100 years. In 1982, due largely to grassroots efforts by concerned citizens, the northern half of the island was designated a Wilderness Area by Congress.
Despite this designation, there are still many threats to ecology and wildlife. The National Park Service has yet to create a wilderness management plan, has not addressed the ongoing environmental damage caused by feral animals, and has not allowed wildfires to burn naturally. The Greyfield Inn, the only commercial hotel on the island, as well as the National Park Service, run private vehicle tours through the wilderness and along the beach.
Thanks to the efforts of Wilderness Watch, in 2004 the Eleventh Circuit Court ruled that vehicle tours through the Wilderness Area were illegal and must cease. Instead of abiding by the court’s decision, Greyfield Inn lobbied Representative Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) to remove areas from Wilderness designation. In late 2004, Kingston slipped a rider on the Omnibus Spending Bill that removed the motorized tour route from Wilderness designation, including critical sea turtle nesting grounds along the beach. There was no opportunity for public comment. It was the first time in our nation’s history that an established Wilderness Area had been removed and fragmented, setting a dangerous precedent for designated Wilderness everywhere.
The Wilderness Area on Cumberland Island remains a unique national treasure. Unfortunately, abuses and mismanagement continue.Wild Cumberland is is a grassroots group dedicated to protecting the designated wilderness, native species, and ecology of Cumberland Island.