Cumberland wilderness under siege

When President Ronald Reagan signed that 1982 bill, he directed the Department of the Interior to "manage Cumberland Island in a manner similar to wilderness, to the maximum extent practicable, consistent with the other uses for the area set forth in the legislative history."

The great public benefit achieved by giving Cumberland Island the wilderness designation is even more profound today — providing the unique opportunity for visitors to experience a barrier island in its relatively natural condition.

To witness windswept maritime forest and magnificent 40-foot sand dunes while hearing only the cries of sea gulls, breaking waves, and rustling leaves is a breathtaking experience no longer attainable along most of the nation's rampantly urbanizing coastline.

Despite the unique and deeply valued wilderness experience afforded by Cumberland Island, it is being compromised by a 2004 effort spearheaded by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) supposedly intended to improve access to historical sites.

In practice, it accommodates the daily motorized tours of private commercial promoters through the wilderness.

By creating a transportation scheme that carves out a road corridor down the center of the island that's intended to bring scores of visitors daily in motorized tours, the provision directly contradicts the island's wilderness designation.

Imposing the use of motorized vehicles in federally designated wilderness is unprecedented in the history of the wilderness program.

The legislation also mandated the National Park service to initiate up to eight, but no less than five, motorized vehicle tours daily through the wilderness, each with as many as 30 people.

Subsequently, a transportation management plan was developed. In conjunction with that plan, and with no public input, a structure in the north end settlement was renovated as a visitor center. This facility is already being used by a commercial tour provider, apparently at no cost.

Although Kingston claims his proposal is compatible with the wilderness status given to most of the island, the transportation plan conflicts fundamentally with the Wilderness Act and establishes a reckless precedent.

Evidently, Kingston believes that vehicular access to the island's north end is more important than preserving and honoring the wilderness experience.

The pending disruption is more than incidental to the interests of private parties who advocate nonwilderness use of the island for profit-making purposes.

An environmental assessment of the transportation proposal completed last year by the National Park Service failed to even acknowledge, much less evaluate, the likely impacts on the visitor experience.

Instead, the assessment only concluded there would be negligible impact on island wildlife.

Whatever the plan's impacts on native plants and animals, the serenity and natural isolation provided by the island wilderness will be degraded when Park Service vehicles shuttle tourists north and south.

Imagine a tranquil outing to watch ospreys, blue herons or pileated woodpeckers abruptly spoiled by the roar of a van passing by.

Because of such concerns, the only form of transport permitted under the Wilderness Act is by horseback. If visitors insist on traveling to their destination using motorized vehicles, they should be seeking a more common, nonwilderness recreational experience elsewhere.

Providing vehicular access to historical sites should not override the protected value of wilderness, especially on a barrier island where unaltered landscape is so rarely accessible to the public.

In a world now confronting the impacts of our technology reaching from one polar cap to the other, surely we can agree to honor an obligation to protect this precious fragment of nature for the unmatched beauty and tranquility that it offers.

David Kyler is the executive director for the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.