Dave Williams, Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA — Fifty years after the Cumberland Island National Seashore was established, the National Park Service (NPS) is pushing a plan that essentially would double daily visitation to the remote barrier island.
While the NPS is selling its Visitor Use Management Plan (VUMP) as a way to provide access to the island’s unique natural beauty to a wider range of visitors, preservationists say the plan would ruin what makes Cumberland special.
“The VUMP Plan is a disaster for the island,” Carol Ruckdeschel, a biologist and environmental activist who has lived on Cumberland Island for decades, wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.
“The NPS must be required to do a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and not be allowed to sneak by with only an assessment. Much of the plan seems to follow no rules or guidelines. It is outrageous.”
Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, stretches for nearly 18 miles of pristine beaches and wilderness.
At its southern end are the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion built by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas in the 1880s.
Toward the northern end is the First African Baptist Church, built by former slaves in the 1890s and rebuilt in the 1930s. The church was the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996.
The island is reachable only by private boat and ferry service that operates twice daily from downtown St. Marys, with a return trip three times a day.
Under the current visitation plan, which dates back to 1984, the ferries limit access to 300 visitors a day. The new plan calls for delivering up to 600 visitors each day to two docks on the western shore near the southern end of the island and potentially another 100 at a dock at Plum Orchard, an estate in the middle of Cumberland’s western shore.
Gary Ingram, the national seashore’s superintendent, said the genesis of the idea for increasing the number of visitors allowed on Cumberland came from Camden County residents who complained to him that the ferry trip is too expensive.
“Many born and raised in our local area have never been to Cumberland Island,” Ingram said last month during a public meeting on the new plan. “This group is far more diverse than the majority of people who visit the park. … We are hopeful this small increase in visitation will lower the price of the ferry.”
Andrew White, a visitor use management specialist with the NPS Planning Division, said the island already has proven capable of sustaining more than 300 daily visitors without adverse impact because of the number of additional visitors who travel to the island by boat each day or camp overnight.
“We know our current management is for more than 300 people on the island on a busy day,” he said.
Ingram said the new plan would give visitors who now stick mainly to the southern end of Cumberland greater access to more of the island, particularly if the NPS opens ferry service to Plum Orchard. He said limiting the ferries to the two docks at the southern end of Cumberland causes congestion at times.
To better disperse visitors, the NPS plan calls for adding two new campsites on the northern end of Cumberland and opening Hunt Camp near Plum Orchard to the public.
The plan also would add pavilions with open sides at two beaches, a bathhouse at Nightingale Beach, kayak and canoe rentals and retail sale of “health and safety” items including sunscreen and bug spray.
A beach access area with a boat landing would be added at the southern end of the island near a shorebird protection area that would be off limits to the public. Bicycle use would be expanded further north.
“It is our hope that this plan not only enhances the visitor experience but also protects the valuable one-of-a-kind resources on Cumberland,” Ingram said.
But preservationists say such amenities would violate the purpose of Cumberland Island National Seashore envisioned when it was established in 1972.
“The seashore, as reflected in its originating legislation, is intended to be a primitive experience for ALL visitors — not only those who seek a wilderness experience,” the nonprofit group Wild Cumberland wrote in a statement.
“If we don’t exhibit the restraint necessary to ensure that places like Cumberland Island remain undeveloped now — none will remain in the future.”
While a public comment period on the new visitation plan ends on Friday, Dec. 30, the NPS isn’t expected to issue a final decision until this summer.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.