a tree-lined lane on Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island, photographed by Charles Seabrook.

I was looking forward to spending the final weeks of this particularly difficult but also joyful year doing virtually nothing: walking, reading, and getting ready for the new year. That is, until I learned the National Park Service has proposed to dramatically alter the way a beloved barrier island on Georgia’s coast has been managed for decades. Cumberland Island National Seashore, a unit of the national park system, is threatened by an overdue but fatally flawed new management plan. The deadline for the public to make comments is December 30.

Most glaringly, in its draft visitor use management plan, the NPS proposes more than a doubling of the number of visitors to the wilderness island with no clear explanation of what is driving this action at this time. An environmental assessment explores the potential impacts of allowing more people and development on Cumberland, but it is not sufficiently comprehensive and doesn’t appear to meet federal requirements. 

Longtime island resident Carol Ruckdeschel—a biologist, environmental activist, and author—believes the proposal is “far out of bounds.” A fierce protector of Cumberland for nearly sixty years, Carol has dedicated her life to studying sea turtles on the island, as well as its ecology and natural history. She told me: “We have a giant mess on our hands here with a terribly destructive visitor management plan. If accomplished, it will drastically change the island as we know it.” 

Conservation and Conflict  

The U.S. Congress established Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972 and President Nixon signed the legislation into law to be managed and protected by the NPS. The enabling legislation states: “the seashore shall be permanently preserved in its primitive state, and no development… for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions now prevailing.” 

A decade later, half of the island, which is about eighteen miles long and averages several miles in width, was designated as federally-protected “wilderness” or “potential wilderness.” As one of the largest remaining barrier island ecosystems on the Atlantic Coast and the first national park to limit the number of daily visitors, Cumberland was always intended to be managed differently from most other units of the park system. 

In 1984, the NPS approved a general management plan for the island with a visitor limit of approximately 300 people per day: the maximum number that two large ferries can carry to the island; purposefully, there is no bridge. Many years of studies and heated debate led to this decision, bolstered by literally thousands of letters from the public saying, in essence, “leave the island alone.” NPS Regional Director Robert Baker was quoted at the time, saying: “The revised plan [with the 300 visitor-a-day limit] will be a reflection of what the public wants to happen on Cumberland.” Neither the number nor the decision was arbitrary. 

Hans Neuhauser, former coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, was actively involved in the planning for Cumberland. He says there was little evidence in the early days—or now—to suggest that the general public wants any change. “To protect the special quality of a visitor’s experience, the island’s ‘carrying capacity’ was determined through experimentation and adopted in official policy; the ferry became the mechanism to control the number,” he said. As a management tool, Hans believes the restricted ferry access has worked well for the 50,000-plus people who visit annually.

Private boats and cruise tours also regularly visit the island; however, the NPS is unable to monitor the number of people who arrive in this fashion, given the minimal funding and staffing available to enforce use limits and other laws. This is a serious problem. Astonishingly, under the proposed plan, no additional funds are assured to monitor, and then adaptively manage, the impacts of more visitors (up to 700 daily ferry passengers and more private boaters) and new development. One hundred of these ferry passengers would be allowed to dock, for the very first time, at Plum Orchard mansion on the edge of the wilderness. 

Why is the NPS proposing to dramatically increase visitation now? Currently, more than 100,000 people are allowed on the island every year: double the number of visitors logged annually over the past decade. I read hundreds of pages of NPS documents, seeking clear, fact-based answers to this essential question. I found only vague references to recurring stakeholder debates, possible socioeconomic barriers, and the need to enhance access to the wilderness. 

Wilderness Protection

Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964 to establish areas of the country “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” According to the statute, wilderness is to be retained in its primeval character, protected and managed to preserve natural conditions. Here, nature, not man, determines “desired conditions,” to use park terminology. Strangely, the NPS has never developed a wilderness stewardship plan for Cumberland pursuant to the agency’s detailed guidance and despite recommendations from its own planners. 

Logically, a park’s most prized and fragile natural areas should be an early focus of park planning and protection, before detailed visitor use plans are developed. The lack of a wilderness plan for Cumberland may be one of the reasons it was easy, twenty years ago, for former Cong. Jack Kingston to insert a last-minute amendment in an omnibus budget bill to open a road for motorized vehicles through the wilderness. 

The proposed visitor plan opens the door for more expansive use of electric bikes near wilderness areas, potentially violating federal law. E-bikes were approved for national lands by the Trump Administration; however, a recent judicial order requires the NPS to review potential user conflict and damage to the environment and allow public comment. It is premature for Cumberland’s new plan to promote the use of motorized bikes, zooming down beaches and near wilderness areas at 25 miles per hour. 

There is no doubt that fact-based management plans must be developed for Cumberland Island National Seashore to offer solutions to real problems and opportunities to enhance park goals. Many of the suggestions in the proposed visitor use plan are positive. The plan’s visitor capacity analysis for a dozen key park destinations is helpful, with the exception of the wilderness section. How can visitor capacity in wilderness areas be calculated without the required stewardship plan? 

The NPS must prepare a full-blown EIS, or environmental impact statement, to comply with federal law and answer the many questions posed here and by others. I plan to make that recommendation in comments submitted to the NPS by Dec. 30. Will you also make your views known? There will be plenty of time to rest and plan for the new year, once we’ve given a voice to the pristine maritime forests, saltmarsh, and beaches of Cumberland Island. 

Review the draft Cumberland Visitor Use Management Plan at https://www.nps.gov/cuis/index.htm and please comment by the extended Dec. 30 deadline. Wild Cumberland offers helpful comments at www.wildcumberland.org

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.