In 1982, nearly 9,000 acres of the northern half of the island was designated a Wilderness Area by Congress. It is one of the largest barrier island Wilderness Areas in the country. In addition, over 11,000 acres was designated as potential wilderness which, legally, must be managed in the same manner as the Wilderness Area.
The wilderness includes saltwater marshes, old-growth maritime forests, and towering sand dunes where endangered sea turtles and shore birds nest. Trails wind past Lake Whitney, a scenic freshwater lake in the heart of the wilderness. Wilderness trails also lead to Terrapin Point and Table Point, which offer expansive views of the saltwater marshes. Several footpaths meander through the dunes and out to the beach, where hundreds of loggerhead turtles crawl ashore each summer to lay their eggs.
There are also a handful of residences still in the wilderness. These residents no longer own their land, but they retain rights to continue living in the wilderness until their rights expire over the next few decades. Congress envisioned that the wilderness character of the island would be restored over time — that retained rights would expire, feral animals would be removed, and naturally occurring wildfires would be allowed to burn.
For many years, the Greyfield Inn, owned by the Carnegie family, as well as the National Park Service, illegally operated motorized commercial tours through the wilderness. In 2004, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court ruled that these Wilderness tours were illegal and must cease. Instead of abiding by the court’s decision, the Greyfield lobbied for the removal of Wilderness designation from several parts of the island to accommodate their tours. Late in 2004, Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston added a rider to the Omnibus Spending Bill just hours before it passed, taking the route of the Greyfield Inn motorized tours out of Wilderness designation, as well as the beach and large swaths of the north end of the island. It was the most substantial removal and fragmentation of Wilderness in U.S. history. The public is still mostly unaware of the deed.