The Cumberland Island National Seashore was established in 1972. Today was the first time it was made widely accessible.
And even then, the definition of “widely” is actually rather narrow.
Cumberland Island is the southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands, of which my dear Jekyll Island is one (and Cumberland’s northern neighbor). It was settled sometime before the 1500s by the Timucuans. Juan Ponce de Leon sailed past it while exploring the New World. The Spanish settled it in 1566, built a small fort and then left due to “harsh conditions” (I figure it was the heat and the mosquitoes – they’re really pretty devastating down there). Through the 1800s, the island was converted mostly into plantations with a vast number of slaves. After Emancipation, the Carnegies (yes, those Carnegies) bought up most of the island. By the 1950s, the National Parks Service ranked Cumberland second only to Cape Cod among the most significant sites along the East Coast. Later, an investor acquired about a fifth of the island with a vision for building a wilderness lodge and resort, had electricity run to the island from the mainland, then in the early ‘70s, he signed his holdings over to the federal government.
The island gained a reputation for its herds of non-indigenous wild horses and its difficulty to traverse, given that no motorized vehicles were permitted on the island (except for those used by the park service for maintenance). It was a place to hike, a place to bike and a place to camp, but not a place for the faint of heart.
Somewhere around seven years ago, Congress decided this was no good, and passed a law that required the National Park Service to begin offering motorized tours of the island.
The problem was, see, they didn’t actually put any money into the law. They didn’t add any funds to train drivers, buy vans, improve the rugged service roads the staff used for maintenance – nothing. They just said, you know, do it.
Staff have compared the approach they’ve used to be the difference between jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool or wading in slowly. They’ve endeavored to do this wisely and cautiously, in such a way that would cause minimal impact to the island. They consulted with other federal agencies and carefully began implementing the steps necessary to fulfill their unfunded mandate from an inept legislative body, the voting members of whom had never set foot on Cumberland’s sacred sands.
And they’ve done so under the fire of critics that have accused them in ineptitude, harangued them in public meetings using terms like “idiots” and “lying cowards” and spread lies and accusations that were unfounded and utterly without merit.
The national treasures of Cumberland Island ought to be accessible to anyone – including the old, the decrepit and the ill. The impact of a few van trips a day will not ruin the experience for the hikers and bikers who make use of the trails that run independent from the service roads used by the tour vans, and the park staff have already demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that the presence of the motorized tours will not harm the island’s wildlife. (People who work for the park service tend to have a soft spot for wildlife.)
Improving access to our national parks ought not to be something we see as shameful.