CUMBERLAND STRIKES A BALANCE
By Gregory B. Paxton, President & CEO of The Georgia Trust
The following editorial was printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution September 10, 2003.
The proposed legislation amending the boundaries of the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area has been the subject of several editorials, in part because the facts have not been reported. This legislation will give the public a better opportunity to appreciate Cumberland Island’s diverse historic resources by permitting reasonable access.
The bill will permit public access to numerous historic sites along the island’s western and northern edge by removing from the wilderness the 200-year-old main road, listed on the National Register, and two spur roads. The vast majority of the wilderness will be preserved, along with a hiking path donated
by families on the island. Indeed, the legislation adds 210 acres
to the wilderness area.
Short of a 16-mile hike, one spur road will provide the only access to the historic African-American Settlement, a late 1800s community made famous as the site of John Kennedy, Jr.’s wedding; and an adjoining historic cemetery, a rare tangible link to the slaves who once occupied the island. It also leads to Native American shell mounds near the former locations of a 1595 Spanish mission and Gen. Oglethorpe’s 1736 fort. Actually, the bill does not go far enough because it does not remove High Point, with its 14 buildings, including a 19th century hotel, from future wilderness designation.
The bill will also facilitate the preservation of 1898 Plum Orchard, Georgia’s largest historic house, which the family donated in 1970 with $50,000 and 12 acres to help establish the National Seashore. The Park Service struggles to preserve it, and several attempts to establish a public/private partnership to save the house have failed for lack of reasonable road access. The current limitations to driving on these historic roads make using and maintaining historic buildings such as Plum Orchard, which require continual upkeep, nearly impossible.
This bill is supported at all levels of the National Park Service, including the current Cumberland Island superintendent and regional and national leaders. When the act creating the wilderness on Cumberland was signed into law in 1982, the President, his Assistant Secretary of Interior and others noted conflicting mandates between wilderness and historic preservation laws. This bill will resolve thorny management problems and has bi-partisan support because it offers visitors a better opportunity to see both the island’s rich natural areas and its numerous historic resources. Visitor surveys overwhelmingly support both. The National Trust’s Save America’s Treasures program has designated Cumberland Island’s diverse historic resources as nationally significant. These resources should be accessible to the average day visitor and to those unable to hike great distances.
Although island families originally lobbied for passage of the wilderness bill, they and the Park Service have been victimized by innumerable unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to limit public access to the island’s numerous historic sites. The proposed legislation represents a reasonable compromise, balancing the interests of wilderness advocates, historic preservationists, island residents and Cumberland visitors.
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation strongly supports this bill and we commend Senators Chambliss and Miller for their leadership in forging a creative solution for Cumberland Island National Seashore.