• info@wildcumberland.org
  • PO Box 872 Scottdale, GA 30079

What is Wilderness?

Wilderness areas are wild places where one can retreat from civilization, reconnect with earth, and find healing and significance. In wilderness areas, the ecosystem is in a natural state and human impact is minimal.

The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas through law. In 1964, our nation’s leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation: in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted The Wilderness Act, which permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America.

In designated Wilderness Areas, legal protections prevent human interference with the natural functioning of the ecosystem. This means that wildlife habitats are preserved, as well as opportunities for us to experience the land in a pristine state.

Cumberland Island Wilderness

In 1982, nearly 9,000 acres of the northern half of the island were designated a Wilderness Area by Congress, making it one of the largest barrier island Wilderness Areas in the country.

In addition, over 11,000 acres were 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 shorebirds nest.

A handful of private residences remain 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 eventually be restored over time — retained rights would expire, feral animals would be removed, and naturally-occurring wildfires would be allowed to burn.

For now, wilderness backpackers will be forced to leave wilderness trails and seek refuge on other trails as the noise, dust, and sights of the vehicular tours consistently impinge on the island’s solitude.

New nodes of non-conforming use activity will be created within or adjacent to the Wilderness Area effectively shrinking the overall size of the Cumberland Wilderness Area for all to use and enjoy.


View Official PDF

Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964 to:

“establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people . . . .”

Congress intended that the Act would secure for present and future generations of Americans an

“enduring resource of wilderness” by creating areas that
“shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as to leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness . . . . ”

The Wilderness Act defines “wilderness” as:

[A]n area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean . . . an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which 1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; 2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; 3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and 4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
Under Congress’ express designation of the Cumberland Island Wilderness and NPS’s own internal management policies (Management Policies 6.3.1), Potential Wilderness must be managed in the same manner as Wilderness.


View Official PDF
The Cumberland Wilderness Area was created by Congress in 1982.

Congress designated 8,840 acres as the Cumberland Island Wilderness and an additional 11,718 acres as potential Wilderness, consisting of a large portion of the northern two-thirds of the island.

The area of potential Wilderness consists largely of the lands and salt marshes surrounding the Wilderness.


View Link to Case

In the case Wilderness Watch v Mainella, 375 F.3d 1085 (11th Cir. 2004) the United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that National Park Service and Greyfield Inn violated the Wilderness Act by using motor vehicles to transport park visitors through the Cumberland Wilderness Area.

The prohibition on motor vehicle use in the Wilderness Act stems from more than just its potential for physical impact on the environment; it promotes the benefits of wilderness “for the American people,” especially the “opportunities for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Id. at § 1131(c). Thus, the statute seeks to provide the opportunity for a primitive wilderness experience as much as to protect the wilderness lands themselves from physical harm.

In managing wilderness resources,

“[a]ll management decisions [of the NPS] affecting wilderness will further apply the concept of “minimum requirement” for the administration of the area regardless of wilderness category.” (2006 NPS Management Policies, Chapter 6.3.1: Wilderness Preservation and Management).

The Minimum Requirements Determination is:

“a documented process used to determine if administrative actions, projects, or programs undertaken by the Service or its agents and affecting wilderness character, resources, or the visitor experience are necessary, and if so how to minimize impacts.” (2006 NPS Management Policies, Chapter 6.3.5: Wilderness Preservation and Management).

The court went on to emphasize NPS’s obligations to preserve and promote those wilderness values for which the Cumberland Wilderness Area was created, the court pointing to

“[o]ther documents in the record [which] highlight the potential conflict between wilderness values and the transportation of passengers.”

The agency’s Minimum Requirements Determination (MRD) for the Plum Orchard trips recognized concerns over the van affecting the quality of the visitor experience for those seeking a wilderness experience. The House report accompanying the bill establishing the Cumberland wilderness area urged the Park Service to provide exclusive access to Plum Orchard by water in the interests of minimizing unnecessary intrusion on wilderness values. The agency itself previously stressed the need to limit mechanized transport to administrative purposes that promote wilderness values.

(‘Administrative use of motorized equipment or mechanical transport will be authorized only if determined by the superintendent to be the minimum requirement needed by management to achieve the purposes of the area as wilderness, including the preservation of wilderness character and values, or in emergency situations. . . .’)” (Internal citations and quotations omitted.).

Wilderness Watch at 1093, 1094. In the end the court concluded

“the acquisition and use of a large passenger van for transporting tourists cannot reasonably be squeezed into the phrase ‘necessary to meet minimum requirements’ of administration [of the Wilderness].”


View Official Document

In an apparent affront to the Cumberland Wilderness Area, the Act removes a 25-foot wide area including the roadways depicted on a revised map of the Cumberland Wilderness Area as the

  • ‘Main Road’
  • ‘Plum Orchard’
  • ‘North Cut Road’

and directs the Secretary of the Interior to maintain these roads

“for continued vehicle use”.
Moreover, the Act directs the Secretary:
“to ensure that not more than 8 and not less than 5 round trips are made available daily on the Main Road north of the Plum Orchard Spur and the North Cut Road by the National Park Service or a concessionaire for the purpose of transporting visitors to and from the historic sites located adjacent to Wilderness.”. Act, Sec. 2 (g).

While the Act removes several roads from the Wilderness for the limited purpose of providing access to visitors to a few historic resources located adjacent to the Wilderness, the Cumberland Island Wilderness still remains very much in place. In fact, the Act directs and is specifically conditioned upon the Wilderness being:

“administered by the Secretary, in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.) governing areas designated by that Act as wilderness areas . . . .”

Timeline of Cumberland's Wilderness

Wilderness Act of 1964

September 3, 1964

Wilderness Act of 1964

A national wilderness preservation system was created.

Cumberland Island National Seashore Established

October 23, 1972

Cumberland Island National Seashore Established

Cumberland Wilderness Area Act

September 9, 1982

Cumberland Wilderness Area Act

Congress designated 8,840 acres as wilderness and an 11,718 acres as potential wilderness.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals: Wilderness Watch V. Mainella

June 28, 2004

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals: Wilderness Watch V. Mainella

NPS & Greyfield Inn were found to be violating the Wilderness Act.

Cumberland Island Boundary Adjustment Act of 2004

October 6, 2004

Cumberland Island Boundary Adjustment Act of 2004

Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston added a rider bill just hours before it passed, removing the route of Greyfield Inn and NPS motorized tours from the wilderness designation, mandating NPS tours, and removing a swath of wilderness.

Visitor Use Management Plan?

June 24, 2020

Visitor Use Management Plan?

With no public updates, the Visitor Use Management Plan’s status is unknown.