The Georgia Trust


Can Nature, History Find Harmony on Cumberland Island?

Cumberland Island's pristine environment draws hundreds of people to the island each year.

Long before the Carnegie family built Plum Orchard, before JFK, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette wed in the tiny African-American Settlement church, and even long before a Spanish mission graced the skyline, Native Americans roamed Cumberland Island, Georgia’s southernmost Golden Isle. Their large, circular shell mounds still frame the island’s northern rim, a remnant of man’s earliest footprints on the island.

While many perceive Cumberland Island as wilderness untouched by man, such tangible links to our ancestors have long coincided with the wild horses and sea turtles that now rove the 17.5-mile, 36,415-acre island. Yet a 22-year-old Wilderness designation has prevented much of the National Register-listed historic resources from being properly maintained—until now.

The 200-year-old, National Register-listed Main Road was recently removed from the Wilderness area.

The Cumberland Island Wilderness Boundary Adjustment Act, passed by Congress in December 2004, presents an opportunity to better preserve and interpret the island’s cultural heritage while continuing to conserve the ecosystems and animal species that comprise its natural environment. The bill removes the High Point-Half Moon Bluff historic district as well as 25 acres of roads from the Wilderness to allow better access to historic sites, while at the same time designates roughly 231 additional acres as Wilderness.

Answering Your Questions About Cumberland Island

Recent press has covered the controversy swirling around the bill to remove Cumberland Island’s Main Road from the Wilderness designation, but what does the change really mean for the island — and for you?

Q: How will visitors access the historic properties?
A: The new bill permits the National Park Service to conduct anywhere from five to eight motorized tours to the sites. The bill allows the Park Service one year to research and develop a plan for transporting visitors to the island’s north end.

Q: Will bicycles be allowed on the Main Road?
A: Yes. You can now ride a bicycle along the Main Road and its offshoot roads—but not at all through the Wilderness.

Q: Will the public be able to drive cars on the island?
A: Absolutely not, says Jerre Brumbelow, superintendent of the Cumberland Island National Seashore. While the bill removes the three roads from wilderness status, it does not include language permitting the public to drive on the island. “If you allow the general public to take vehicles over there, they would be running all over places they’re not supposed to be. The Park Service has the responsibility and the right to limit those types of actions, and that’s something we would never allow to happen.”

Q: Are private boats allowed to dock on the island, or do all visitors need to arrive by ferry?
A: While a commercial operation other than the ferry cannot bring people to the island, private boats such as kayaks, motorboats and yachts carrying daytrippers have always been and will continue to be allowed to land on the beach or pull up to the Sea Camp, Plum Orchard or Dungeness docks.

Q: Will the number of daily visitors allowed on the island increase?
A: It will stay at its current limit of about 300 people a day. “If there’s a decision to make a significant change to that number at some time in the future, there will be public comment before—if—we do that,” Brumbelow says. “But there’s no immediate push or need to do that because the 300-person limit fits the island just fine right now.”

Q: Will removing roads from the Wilderness status lead to new construction and commercialization of the island?
A: No, and there’s no intent to commercialize the island. “Commercialization as in ‘we’re putting a McDonald’s on the island,’ which is what everybody thinks of commercialization,“ says Brumbelow, “absolutely not.”

Q: Will the new bill decrease the acreage designated as Wilderness?
A: No. In fact, while the bill removes portions of the historic roads through the area, it also adds 231 additional acres to the Wilderness boundaries.

Q: Will allowing visitor access to the historic sites at the north end of the island require additional construction for restrooms and other amenities?
A: Not necessarily. The park owns a non-historic ranger cabin that, because of the limited access, has not been in use and could be retrofitted for amenities. The park services does not, however, plan to build any additional structures in the area.


“The attempt to preserve both natural and historic resources on Cumberland failed under the former plan, with several significant historic resources being demolished by neglect,” says Greg Paxton, president and CEO of the Trust. “The new law provides access to rehabilitate and maintain Georgia’s largest historic house, and access to the large historic district at the island’s north end.”

Historic buildings go wild
Enacted in 1982, Cumberland Island’s Wilderness designation protects its ecosystem and wildlife from the possibility of development. While those with reserved rights, such as island residents, have always been able to drive motorized vehicles through the Wilderness area—an 8,840-acre swath of land covering much of the island’s northern half—the bill restricted the national park service and users of Plum Orchard from doing so. (See for more on the designation.)

Yet some areas designated as Wilderness surround sites such as Plum Orchard, High Point, Half Moon Bluff Historic District and the 200-year-old Main Road, for which the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 mandates preservation.

The subsequent conflict between the two designations has presented a challenge to those attempting to maintain the nearly 40 historic structures near or surrounded by the Wilderness-designated boundaries—especially because historic buildings on the sub-tropical coast require frequent maintenance and access to avoid rapid deterioration.

“The Wilderness was so restrictive that it made it nearly impossible to do the maintenance jobs we needed to do with the resources that we had,” says Jerre Brumbelow, superintendent of the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Access Helps Preserve History
While the Wilderness and Historic designations have been in conflict over the past 20 years, the recent bill offers a resolution that should enhance the island’s historic structures for years to come.

The bill states that the 25-foot-wide Main Road, Plum Orchard Spur Road and the North Cut Road are removed from Wilderness designation and shall be maintained for continued vehicle use.

Lack of accessibility to more than 30 historic sites within or bordered by Wilderness allowed many of them to deteriorate—the Plum Orchard Carriage House has already fallen to the ground from neglect. More than half of the 13 structures located in The Settlement and Half Moon Bluff have also been lost.

Still, others now have the chance to be saved thanks to the bill’s passage. The 1898 Plum Orchard, for example, the state’s largest single-family historic house and itself a historic district, is surrounded by Wilderness. Maintenance vehicles were not permitted to drive through the Wilderness to reach the site, which is on both the World Heritage Threatened list and the National Trust’s Most Endangered list. The 22,000-sq.-ft. structure has suffered damage, but preservationists now have the means to access the site for stabilization, restoration and use.

More Access Granted—But Still Limited
Now that the bill has passed, “it doesn’t change much from what we’re doing now, except we will spend a little bit more time on the north end of the island because the structures are in disrepair,” Brumbelow says.

Under the newly passed bill, the National Park Service can make no more than eight round trips a day on the Main Road north of the Plum Orchard Spur and the North Cut Road for the purpose of transporting visitors to and from the historic sites located adjacent to—not within—the Wilderness. Previously, island visitors could reach historic sites at the northern tip of the island only by a 30-mile round-trip hike.

The bill does not, however, increase the daily allowance of visitors to the island, which remains at 300. Nor does it allow the general public access to drive on the road.

“The fact is, that bill is not going to be responsible for changing the pristine nature of the island at all,” Brumbelow says. “It’s probably going to end up enhancing [the island] with more studies and figuring out the proper utilization of the island.”

While the Park Service is excited about the easier access to such historic sites—and the opportunity to educate the public about the island’s history—it is intent on preserving Cumberland Island’s pristine nature.

“Part of my job is to enhance the wilderness experience for people going through the Wilderness,” Brumbelow says, noting that his priority is determining how to move people along the non-Wilderness roads without destroying that experience.

This African-American church at The Settlement site once witnessed the 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. The remote location that attracted the couple also makes the building and its surrounding structures difficult to visit and maintain.

The bill provides one year for the National Park Service to develop a plan to transport people to the north end of the island without disturbing the surrounding Wilderness. The park service hopes to use environmentally compatible transportation. In addition, a new welcome center is being built on the mainland in St. Mary’s, from which ferries depart to the barrier island.
Meanwhile, the sea turtles and wild horses will continue to roam the island as they have for centuries before—in coexistence with human history’s memories.








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