Above the Waterline: Cumberland Island is a complex and fragile beauty

Photos by Diane Kirkland

I remember the experience like it was yesterday, rather than 40-plus years ago: I lay in a cold, soggy sleeping bag in a pool of water that had seeped into my tent from the torrential rain. Armadillos rustled loudly through the brush outside the tent, trying to find ants, beetles, termites and other insects with their pointy snouts. I was uncomfortable and tired but elated to be on my first adventure on Cumberland Island – one of the last, and largest, undeveloped islands on the East Coast.

That Thanksgiving weekend in the mid-1970s, when my friend Jerry backpacked a cooked turkey the six, wet miles to our campsite at Yankee Paradise, was the first of many trips to the island that have inspired my advocacy on its behalf. I’ve kayaked to the north end of the island, across the Intracoastal Waterway, and camped at Brickhill Bluff. I’ve flown over the island, visited with a photography class to take pictures of the biological diversity and beauty, and bounced along the beach in a vehicle with other members of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources. Last fall, I joined a group organized by Georgia River Network at Sea Camp for several days of hiking, biking and ocean gazing.

Most of Cumberland Island was designated a National Seashore in 1972 and is managed by the National Park Service as a unit in its park system. A decade later, nearly 10,000 acres of the island, which is about 18 miles long and three miles wide (at its widest), received additional protection as a federally-designated “wilderness.”

While testifying at a hearing in support of wilderness on Cumberland in the early 1980s, I met the legendary Carol Ruckdeschel: self-taught biologist, environmentalist, island resident for four-plus decades, museum curator, author and road-kill eater, who was immortalized by John McPhee in The New Yorker in 1973. (I’ve read that armadillo pate is one of her specialties.)

Then and now, Carol is a force of nature, at once a smiling, soft-spoken educator and a fierce protector of the island that has her heart: the place she immediately wanted to know all about, when she first traveled there in the 1960s, and that inspired her “self-imposed job.” The study of sea turtles initially consumed Carol’s island life and led to her being known as the “Jane Goodall of sea turtles.” More recently, she has focused on the whole ecology of the island and last year published “A Natural History of Cumberland Island” (Mercer University Press).

On June 30, Carol will be in Atlanta for a talk and book-signing at Fernbank Science Center; the event will kick off a six-week exhibit of extraordinary Cumberland images by Diane Kirkland, a photographer for the state of Georgia for 25-years with deep experience in depicting the beauty and cultural traditions of Georgia. The Cumberland exhibit is intended to bring greater awareness of this historic barrier island, its treasures and its continuing need of protection.

For the past several years, a debate has raged, as local officials granted a “hardship” variance to subdivide 88 acres in the heart of the island, near Sea Camp, into 10 lots – and the state granted permits to build a huge boat dock to access the undeveloped property. That dock is now under construction, although legal appeals have been filed.

There are 1,000 acres of privately-held land on the island. How much, if any, development should be permitted? Can development meet the vision of the national seashore’s enabling legislation: that it be permanently preserved in its primitive state? While the private landowners on Cumberland have been recognized as a significant part of the island’s history, park lovers and conservationists are rightly concerned about zoning density, habitat fragmentation and impacts on the beloved national seashore and its wilderness area.

I can’t imagine walking or biking down the one-lane sandy road that runs the length of the island, while viewing dozens of buildings wedged into the pristine maritime forest and having to dodge increasing numbers of vehicles. Is there a solution that respects the desires of private landowners and also ensures the protection of this national treasure for current and future generations?

This summer, you will have a chance to ponder these questions, while viewing Diane’s photography exhibit, “Cumberland Island: A Complex and Fragile Beauty.” Join me for the exhibit opening on Sunday, June 23 (4 to 6 p.m.) at the Fernbank Science Center, 156 Heaton Park Dr., Atlanta, and hear Carol Ruckdeschel speak about her beloved island, its natural history and ongoing challenges.

Exhibit Chair Carolyn Rader invites you to become a host committee member or sponsor of this important exhibit, which includes a private reception with Carol and Diane prior to the public event; Carolyn can be reached at chrader@bellsouth.net.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards.