Trammeling in Wilderness on Cumberland Island
May 13th 2021
In March, it was brought to the attention of the National Park Service (and Wild Cumberland) that humans had purposely dug a deep channel in federally-designated Wilderness to drain a freshwater slough. This is a natural slough that formed years ago and causes a portion of a road to hold water.
The newly dug, man-made “channel” forces freshwater to drain directly from the slough onto the beach, depleting delicate ecosystems of freshwater that is critical to their survival. The only purpose of this “channel” is to prevent a private road from flooding,
NPS confirmed that their staff has temporarily stopped the flow of freshwater onto the beach, and that they are evaluating salinity, among other factors, to determine whether additional mitigation or restoration is warranted.
This breach will allow saltwater to reach the freshwater area during substantial high tides, and will allow the freshwater to escape if it breaches the existing repair – both of which additionally threaten Endangered species living there.
This area is a known habitat for the American Eel, Anguilla rostrata, the only species of freshwater eel found in North America and categorized as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It has also been under review for CITES listing.
Wild Cumberland believes that the potential catastrophic damage
to this essential dune warrants immediate, thorough
investigation and repair.
NPS’s default management policy, however, is to allow ‘nature to take its course’ — despite the fact that someone willfully went into a federally-protected Wilderness and altered a critical island resource (freshwater) for their own convenience.
On May 6, Wild Cumberland urged the NPS to reconsider its “default approach” and explore opportunities to escalate all environmental assessments and prioritize repair to the affected area.
We also connected NPS directly with USGS researchers who have extensive expertise in the hydrology of our barrier islands and we also suggested they consult EPD on potential remediation.
Sand dunes are prioritized as a critical habitat area by the state of Georgia and protected by the Shoreline Protection Act; they are critical nesting habitats for multiple threatened and
endangered species, and integral to the ecosystems and function of our coastal barrier islands.
This man-made alteration has the potential to impact a large wetland covering many acres (including 83-acre Lake Whitney). With increasingly hotter, drier summers, the NPS has a responsibility to escalate and repair this issue to minimize impact.
We feel that the NPS has an obligation and responsibility to repair the anthropogenic damage done to the natural barrier dune system as soon as possible, and that repairs can likely be done with minimal impact to surrounding ecosystems/Wilderness.
The NPS has a responsibility to ensure that private residents who are privileged enough to live within the boundaries of Cumberland Island National Seashore and adjacent to Wilderness understand the legal requirements related to those designations.
NPS has refused to release an incident report at this time, despite a FOIA request, because it is an “active investigation”.