Preserving the Cultural and Natural Resources on Cumberland Island

By Nancy Tinker posted 04-09-2013 15:11

 Dungeness landscape cumberland credit flickr
 Tangible reminders of earlier settlements on Cumberland Island can still be found on the island. | Credit: flickr
Cumberland Island, Georgia’s southernmost barrier island, is a magical place where history and the natural world enchant visitors who make the short boat trip from the mainland. But over time, Mother Nature has been slowly erasing the tangible reminders of the island’s history. Many wilderness advocates are fine with this. But others desire to see the island’s cultural resources preserved. Either way, there are no easy answers.

Encompassing 36,000 acres, Cumberland Island’s varied ecosystem includes maritime forest, former agricultural land, sand dunes, expansive beaches, and an abundance of saltwater marshes. The island has been home to a wide diversity of cultures—Native Americans, Spanish warriors, British soldiers, American colonists, plantation owners, enslaved Africans, and freedmen. By the late 19th century, much of the island was owned by Thomas Carnegie, younger brother of Andrew Carnegie. The stories of these people and the remaining cultural resources are as valuable and as worthy of protection as the natural environment in which they are located.

In the early 1970s, proposals to develop the heart of the island as an upscale resort spurred Carnegie descendents to request that Congress establish the Cumberland Island National Seashore. National Seashore recognition was awarded in 1972, irrevocably shifting the island’s status from a vast private estate to an offshore domain of primarily public lands whose day-to-day management was guided by the National Park Service (NPS). Wilderness designation followed ten years later when President Ronald Reagan awarded 8,840 acres (24 percent of the island), wilderness recognition and provided an additional 11,718 acres (32 percent of the island) as “potential wilderness.” The National Seashore and Wilderness recognitions encompass the majority of Cumberland’s acreage, however, a minor portion of the island continues in private hands, with most of these properties scheduled to transition to public land at the end of numerous life estates.

With access limited to a daily ferry, or private boats or planes, Cumberland has only a few full-time residents and welcomes, at most, 300 visitors a day. The island has developed a national reputation as an exceptional locale for camping, day hiking, and sea kayaking. Over time, many island visitors have become active advocates, with each claiming their individual approach as the best avenue to protect the island. Advocates differ not only in what they wish to protect, but in their views of how best to achieve even shared goals. Some advocates favor restoration and preservation of the cultural resources while others recommend allowing the island to revert to wilderness. Still others seek simply to maintain the status quo. The status quo, however, is neither simple nor stable.

Balancing Natural and Cultural Resources

 220px-Cumberland-island-marsh Credit NPS
Cumberland Island is host to a varied ecosystem that includes marshes, beaches agricultural land, and forests. | Credit: National Park Service
Battles rage over who has what rights and how federal and state governments are obligated to manage the island’s natural and cultural resources. The NPS has the unenviable task of moderating competing factions whose diversity of expectations has resulted in controversy over many NPS management decisions. The reality of too few hands to do the work and too little funding are significant problems. Unfortunately, unlimited resources are not available, leaving the NPS with the difficult dilemma of choosing which resources will be maintained and which will be allowed to decay further.The National Trust and its partners do not perceive cultural and natural resource values to be inherently in conflict. Nor do cultural resource supporters seek to undermine characteristics that define wilderness. Instead, what preservation advocates seek is a balancing of priorities in order to create parity for cultural resources. History has shown that Cumberland’s stakeholders are capable of reaching negotiated solutions on important issues. In order to succeed on Cumberland, the following issues must be resolved:

Prioritization of Values

What are Cumberland Island’s priorities? Is it wilderness or preservation of historic structures? Can both be of equal priority? Most units of the national park system encompass both natural and cultural resources. The National Trust suggests that the NPS focus on ecological integrity and cultural/historical authenticity which would help establish a national conservation landscape.

Historic Leasing

 Dungeness cumberland island credit flickr
 In 1881 Thomas Carnegie built Dungeness, a 59-room Queen Anne-style residence, which was destroyed by fire in 1959. | Credit: flckr
The potential reuse of historic structures is closely aligned with the granting of public access. The preservation of a historic structure is often accomplished by ensuring that it is occupied and used. Throughout the seven regions of the National Park System, numerous National Register-listed properties are underutilized and inadequately maintained. In light of current fiscal restraints, some National Park units have granted historic leases to provide for the use and management of these properties. In these instances stewards in possession of the lease are given the right to use and/or occupy the property, either part-time or full-time, assuming responsibility for defined building maintenance activities that NPS is unable to undertake or fund.

Authenticity and the Transformative Experience

Cultural and historic authenticity requires an object or setting to serve as an accurate representation of a specific time and place. Transformative experience is based on interaction with natural and cultural resources, an activity intended to both educate and inspire. Such experience can be a weeklong confidence-building wilderness adventure, a first encounter with a night sky free of artificial light, or to stand within the footprint of an early Native American dwelling.

 Plum_Orchard_on_Cumberland_Island (2)
Only a few buildings remain on Cumberland Island, including the National Register-listed Plum Orchard, constructed in 1898. | Credit: National Park Service, Cumberland Island National Seashore

Despite the fact that Cumberland Island National Seashore was established 40 years ago, long-term goals continue in flux. In late 2012, the NPS initiated Foundation Document planning at the Seashore, a process designed to examine the island’s core mission, formulate shared understanding, and establish management guidance. National Trust legal staff and the Charleston Field Office are actively engaged, requesting that the NPS establish partnerships and institutionalize an ethic of stewardship, balancing priorities assigned to cultural and natural resources. New knowledge and changing conditions—accelerated environmental change, a more diverse population, and advances in science—make it incumbent that the principles of resource management and stewardship be re-examined and revised.

Cumberland Island is an American story with its individual story mirroring aspects central to the nation’s history. With care, Cumberland could serve as a model, illustrating that extraordinary natural lands, occupied over multiple generations, can be managed to preserve both natural and cultural resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

Nancy Tinker is a Senior Field Officer in the Charleston Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation


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