Dec 26, 2022 - News

Environmentalists say Cumberland Island changes need more scrutiny

Two women wearing backpacks walk on a dirt road under live oaks covered with Spanish moss

Photo: Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Advocates for Cumberland Island National Seashore say a new plan that would more than double the number of daily visitors to the barrier island needs more study to avoid harming wildlife and nature.

Driving the news: The National Park Service has set a Dec. 30 deadline for the public to comment on the first update to Cumberland’s visitor use management plan since 1984.

  • The long-term plan outlines how visitors are allowed to use and experience Cumberland while also protecting the island’s diverse ecosystem and historic features.

Why it matters: Cumberland’s Spanish-moss covered live oaks, marshes, and a peaceful 17-mile beach untouched by development are postcard perfect examples of barrier island beauty. Protecting those charms and helping people enjoy them requires a steady hand.

Details: Under the new plan, Cumberland would double the number of people who can visit the island by ferry every day, from approximately 300 to 600. Adding a ferry docking location on the island could increase that number to 700.

  • The update also considers new trails, wilderness camping areas, water and electric infrastructure, a private docking area, more commercial opportunities like a small store, and the use of e-bikes, among other changes.

What's happening: Advocates of the island say park officials have failed to show why an uptick in visitors is warranted, and that they need to conduct a detailed study of the potential effect it could have on Cumberland's primitive feature and wildlife. The long-time visitor cap currently in use has helped Cumberland avoid being overrun like so many other properties in the park system, they argue.

  • They also question whether the data that officials have collected is sufficient — and how they'll monitor and enforce other changes, like prohibiting dogs near a shorebird protection area.
  • "I love the fact that more people will have access to it," Emily Floore of the St. Mary's Riverkeeper, whose concerns include water quality monitoring, told Axios. "I just don't, in this plan, see how that would work."

What they're saying: “I have to question whether the scope of changes in this plan is... aligned with the intent of the seashore and its wilderness and whether or not these changes will serve future generations," Jessica Howell-Edwards of Wild Cumberland told Axios. "As well if we are really looking at stewardship of our public lands."

Yes, but: Park officials say the goal of the updated plan — which has been in the works since 2017 and has included public meetings — is to better manage growing visitor numbers, increase access, particularly to "historically disadvantaged" people, and rethink how officials preserve Cumberland’s natural resources.

What's next: Both environmental groups, as well as the Georgia Conservancy and Southern Environmental Law Center, are drafting formal comments to submit before the park's Dec. 30 deadline.

Go deeper: The NPS’ public comment portal includes the plan, a FAQ and other documents.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Atlanta.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Atlanta stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Atlanta.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more