Officials on Georgia’s coast are trying to navigate a narrow strait between property rights and public preservation of a precious bit of wilderness.
Some 800 acres on the mostly feral and feverishly cherished Cumberland Island are on the cusp of possible development by longtime legacy landowners. And it’s a prospect that many are distinctly horrified at.
Camden County officials even approved a variance last December allowing Coca-Cola heirs “to divide an 88-acre tract near the park’s Sea Camp into 10 lots,” as our sister newspaper The Savannah Morning News reported.
Two appeals of the variance, one by the St. Marys Earthkeepers, as well as subsequent negotiations that now involve the National Park Service, have kept the zoning in limbo — but also have kept the island at risk, in the view of many around the nation who have taken the 45-minute ferry to commune with one last largely unspoiled piece of wilderness.
Diminishing wilderness areas where one can escape even the noise of civilization, particularly on the Eastern seaboard, are a treasure, argues Professor Gary Green of the University of Georgia.
“We don’t ever really escape the life that we live and the noise,” he told a documentary maker.
“And we do need places where we can do that.”
That documentary, The Shrinking Sanctuary (available for free viewing at https://vimeo.com/223071670) is a personal passion project by Augusta videographer Mark Albertin, and has been screened recently in St. Marys and is being requested for viewing as far away as Atlanta.
It opens with a glorious Cumberland sunrise, and this quote from Sigurd F. Olson: “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”
No one is a bigger proponent of private property than this newspaper. Perhaps the landowners on Cumberland Island can be accommodated in some way.
Then again, they might also be persuaded against their own wishes by the abiding and heartfelt opposition to more development on this treasure island.
As Dr. Green notes, more development most often means even more development: A growing cadre of residents naturally want and need services, utilities, conveniences and diversions. Electricity, stores, restaurants and so on.
This might not be in the plans for Cumberland, nor in its fate. Yet this is undoubtedly the natural progression of development. And that cannot be allowed to be Cumberland’s future.
What a historical shame it would be if we allowed Cumberland to be like any other playground island.
Experts also fear that further human development could alter Cumberland’s nature as a barrier island; they say it has a powerful but fragile role as a barrier for the mainland against the advent of storm and sea. Not to mention the potential to step on nature’s complex fauna-and-flora rhythm, which we have yet to fully comprehend.
“Cumberland Island,” says Albertin, “is one of the few places along our Eastern seaboard that allows us to see the world as it was meant to be seen.”
This is a matter not just for today, but for posterity. If Cumberland succumbs to modernity, asks UGA’s Diane Klement, “How will they ever know what we had?”
Alex Kearns moved to the area from Canada in 2006. In need of comfort, and having read of Cumberland’s healing powers, she visited the island her first day.
“Everything that I’d read was an understatement,” she says. “You hear the breath of the world. To ever lose that kind of symphony …” she adds, choking with emotion. “I need my grandson to hear that.”
Only happenstance and Carnegie family disagreements prevented Cumberland from being developed, farmed and even mined for titanium over the years, according to the book Cumberland Island National Seashore: A History of Conservation Conflict, by Lary Dilsaver, a longtime National Parks volunteer researcher.
According to Florida Times-Union columnist Mark Woods, another expert on the National Parks, rezoning on Cumberland could open it up “for the construction of 65 new homes — more than double the current number on the entire island — and (end) a 45-year trend of Cumberland Island gradually becoming less developed over time.”
Can we allow luck to guide the island’s stewardship today?
Change is good. Much of the time. Nature itself is changing every minute.
But when it comes to diminishing wilderness areas, perhaps it’s best to let nature take its course.