- Cumberland Island National Seashore: A History of Conservation Conflict
The largest and southernmost of the "Golden Isles" that line Georgia's coast, Cumberland Island became a national seashore on 23 October 1972. The transformation of the private island refuge of generations of wealthy Candlers and Carnegies into a public resource for less exalted US citizens is a story as twisting and stormswept as Cumberland's maritime oaks. Lary Dilsaver, Professor of Geography at the University of South Alabama and author of America's National Park System: The Critical Documents (1994), narrates this fascinating story while adroitly presenting it as a case study of political and environmental conflicts that rock public lands nationwide.
Cumberland Island stretches 18.5 mi north to south, extending east to west for 3 mi at its widest point. Wide beaches, dunes, salt marshes, scrub, and oak and pine forests are interrupted with small freshwater lakes and winding creeks. This diversity of ecological habitats allows for over 500 different subtropical plants and an estimated 450 varieties of birds and animals. Plentiful fish and shellfish attracted a succession of pre-Columbian Native Americans, and traces of shell mounds still mark their island residency. The Timucuans, Cumberland's last tribal settlers, succumbed to European diseases that Spanish Franciscans unknowingly carried when they established two missions on the island they called San Pedro. The Spanish missions in turn yielded to the English forces of General James Oglethorpe, who coveted Cumberland's timber for shipbuilding and its strategic position for raids into Spanish Florida. Following the American Revolution, large landowners, including war hero General Nathanael Greene, established plantations on the island. Their 455 African American slaves eventually cleared half the island, converting woodlands to fields of lucrative sea island cotton. When the plantation owners' comfortable lifestyle collapsed following the Civil War, most of their former slaves fled to the mainland in search of better lives, and plantation houses and slave cabins alike decayed into picturesque ruins.
The poverty of the island, however, did not prevent Lucy Coleman Carnegie, wife to the legendary Andrew's brother Thomas, from recognizing its tranquil beauty. As a child, Lucy Carnegie attended boarding school in near-by Fernandina, and later visited Cumberland while touring the Georgia Islands. Jekyll Island to the north was already prospering as a winter resort for wealthy northerners, but Lucy Carnegie envisioned a more private retreat for her family of nine children. She convinced her husband to buy the large property that contained Dungeness, a ruined mansion built by General Greene's daughter Catherine. Lucy Carnegie lavishly restored Dungeness, acquired more property, and slowly returned the island to agricultural prosperity. As her children grew up, she presented them with luxurious homes of their own, but she also created a trust that restricted sale of these properties during her children's lifetimes. By 1962, when the last child died, even Carnegie fortunes had declined. Disagreements among the heirs about island development followed, including an aborted proposal to strip-mine large portions of the island for titanium. Eventually, some of the family members united to protect their beloved island by convincing the National Park Service to establish a national seashore. The lengthy and complex negotiations between the US Department of the Interior and multiple property owners were ultimately successful, although titleholders were able to retain certain privileges and property rights for several generations. Thanks in part to a generous donation by the Mellon Foundation for land acquisition, the storied private island became Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972, property of the people of the United States.
Another cycle of dramatic transformation thus began, and the Park Service found that each period of the island's history contributed distinctive challenges. The Spanish friars' horses and pigs left feral descendents that wreak havoc on native plants and wildlife. Although the wild horses enchant visitors, the wildlife management issues caused by free-ranging livestock thwart the Park Service's efforts to preserve native habitat. The English navy's need of timber...