ATLANTA - Residents of Cumberland Island had one word Thursday for proponents of the draft plans for managing the preserve: "Wait."
During one of a series of public hearings on the National Park Service's proposed 700-page plan, islanders said restrictions on driving, use of docks and other limitations are premature because the residents have those rights for many years to come as a condition of their gift of land to the government.
Resident Nancy Carnegie Copp, 74, noted that many of the rights holders are disappearing with time and that most will be gone in 20 years.
"I have always thought of Cumberland as a fine, lovely lady," she said, choking back tears. "Everyone who has ever met her wants to possess her. The park service has almost got her to say `I do.' Just enjoy a short engagement, and soon she will be yours forever."
Many of the 35 or so people at the hearing, held in a meeting room of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument, sat with children on their laps or well-thumbed copies of the draft plan. Most knew one another from the four years the plan has been in the drafting stage or because they met on the island during vacations.
There seemed to be a consensus on how special the island is and why this former retreat for millionaires should be preserved. And they also agreed that getting copies of the mammoth blueprint was unnecessarily difficult in time to comment at the hearing.
Another round of hearings will be held in March in St. Marys and Atlanta. Written comments can be submitted until May 4.
Hunter Jack Leichliter faulted the plan's approach to eradicating the 6,000 feral hogs on the island because it relies on professional hunters with lights at night, fences and widened trails for removing the 100-pound carcasses by vehicle. Instead, he suggested, the park service should stop turning away private hunters willing to pay $50 for the chance to kill a hog for sport and food, and start letting hunters use modern weapons.
Greg Paxton, president of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, called the overall plan good but too restrictive in some respects. He listed several examples of how the park service's attempt to preserve the wilderness aspects of the island would prevent visitors and preservationists from having ready access to historic buildings, including the 22,000-square-foot Plum Orchard mansion.
Much of the push to draft a management plan came from Defenders of Wild Cumberland, a group of environmentalists who say the park service has had 20 years to craft a specific strategy for returning the land to a pristine condition. After the afternoon hearing, Defenders representative Dave Johnston of Macon said the discussion could help improve understanding between the environmentalists, historic preservationists and the residents.
"I now know a whole lot more about this island than I did before I got here," he said.