|Volunteering for the
National Park Service at Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island here I come. Well... sort of. One thing stood in my
way: jury duty... I should have lied and said that I would have been down on
Cumberland Island during the time of jury duty, but being the honest civilian that I am, I
went and had to sit through two days of jury selection for a rape trial involving drugs,
etc... Thank goodness I didn't get chosen. I think I would have gone crazy knowing
that Cumberland Island was waiting for me. I was so upset, I considered
de-registering myself for voting! After jury duty on January 13th, I stayed up till
midnight packing for Cumberland. After about 3 hours of sleep, I headed out at 4am
towards the Georgia Coast to catch the 11:45am ferry.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a beautiful place. It's not just
your typical coastal island. First of all, the vast majority of the island hasn't
been logged in over 100 years resulting in a magnificent and magical maritime
forest. The huge live oaks and the Spanish moss make the place look more like an
ancient jungle rather than a island just a few miles from smelly paper mills and the Kings
Bay Naval Base (support facility for US Trident nuclear subs, which, by the way, carry
nuclear weapons). The thick canopy overhead and the lightly scattered undergrowth of
palmettos and shrubs provides an excellent example how most coastal forests probably
looked before the mighty whitey came over from Europe. Deserted beaches await beyond
the field of dunes which protects the maritime forest from the harsh ocean winds. If
the simple natural beauty weren't enough, the place is also teeming with wildlife.
It would be difficult to miss the armadillos... they're all over the place and are fairly
unaware of humans. Stay more than one day and you are likely to catch views of wild
horses, feral pigs, and maybe an otter and alligator or two. Of course, you've got
the usual shorebirds as well as the porpoises and whales. Although there aren't too
many hills to challenge hikers, there is plenty of flat terrain to keep most folks busy
for up to a week. Many of the less traveled trails on the North end offer
breathtaking views of natural marshes and fields. Although the island is littered
with historical sites, the most significant site lies on the south end: the Carnegie
Family's Dungeness mansion ruins.
I stayed in the cabin on the North side of the island right next to the
"Settlement" where the island slaves moved after the Civil war... being the
volunteer, I found that quite fitting! The cabin was... well... quaint. Bit of
a mildew smell at first, but cleaning took care of that. No one had lived in this
thing for a year before I arrived. It was old and needed some cleaning, but had all
of the necessities you would expect to find including a stove, hot water, hot shower, full
bed, twin sized rollaway, couch, fridge/freezer, washer/dryer, and a 16 mile long yard
known as Cumberland Island! It had four rooms (kitchen, living room, bathroom, and
bedroom) and a porch. Take a look at the vehicle they gave me... They call it
a Chevy LUV (light utility vehicle). Everyone else calls it the LuvMobile.
Little works except the engine, transmission, and head lights. Pretty funny... but
it works for what I needed it for... that is, until it rained (windshield wipers didn't
work at first). :-)
The trail maintenance was pretty nice... It was nice to take breaks and
enjoy the silence. However, I was completely by myself for the most part. I
drove out to the trailhead, did my work by myself, then headed home. There were some
weeks where I didn't see my "boss" (also jokingly known as the
"warden" or Captain Bligh by some of the trail crews that came in) for a week at
a time or so. During these times, the most contact I had with the real world or
even other people on the island was via radio or when I passed them on the road or met
hikers on the trail. Then of course there is the joy of plucking an average of one
tick per day off of my body. Just as I was really getting sick of trail
maintenance, they started training me for visitor services and leading tours. This
involved either running the island Visitor's Center or leading the Footsteps tour through
the Dungeness area on the South side. I thoroughly enjoyed working with visitors in
this capacity. It has really provided me with a thorough review of US history as
Cumberland holds a microcosm of history here in the South. See my Brief Timeline of History on Cumberland Island if you are
interested in reading more.
Cumberland Island - Land of many
Cumberland Island may appear peaceful and serene to the everyday visitor.
The good news is that many people care about the island deeply and understand what
a gem it is. The bad news is that these strong feelings for the island create
controversy in attempting to find the best way to manage the island. Below, I shall
attempt to provide an unbiased perspective below on the various issues surrounding the
island. Afterwards I'll provide some opinions.
As more and more people discover Cumberland Island, there is bound to be
increased demand for visitation to Cumberland Island. A cereal company is releasing
a cereal named after the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island. This "free"
advertising will certainly increase demand as well. Currently visitation is limited
to no more than 300 people on the island at any one time. Visitors are bound to be
upset when they drop into the visitors center only to find out that day trips to
Cumberland are sold out. On the other hand, even the day visitors appreciate the
solitude available on Cumberland. Most of the people when asked (on the tours) if
they would like to see visitation numbers increase, they answer with a resounding
"no!" The solitude and nature watching opportunities are apparently
important to the public.
Wilderness area conflicts
When the US Congress designates an area as "wilderness", it is
supposed to be an area that is relatively untouched by man. No vehicles (or other
mechanized vehicles including bicycles) and no roads are allowed. So why the heck is
there a road going into the Cumberland Island wilderness area? There are two laws in
direct conflict with each other. The road is a historic road and was in existence in
its current form in the 1900's. The road is therefore protected due to its
historical nature. So the wilderness act says no roads allowed, but the road is
historically protected. It is odd that you can drive vehicles into the wilderness,
but you can't ride a bike in.
Vehicles in the wilderness area
Most wilderness areas allow fires and camping in any location. The
Cumberland wilderness area allows neither. Camping is allowed only in designated
spots. The rule against fire is necessary (see Fire
below). However, there are little known exceptions to this rule. The seashore
on the island is also governed by a set of laws that differ slightly from the wilderness
and the non-wilderness areas (National Seashore). Although not advertised to the
public, fires and camping are allowed on the beach. (PS I wouldn't recommend
attempting a fire or camping on the Cumberland beach! A new management plan may be
in effect by the time you read this. The future management plan on Cumberland may
house some exceptions to the rules specified in the national definition of "National
There are also retained right holders in the wilderness area as well which
creates another conflict. The park service also has a cabin for rangers or
volunteers on the North side of the island, deep into the wilderness area. Rangers
also patrol the wilderness area via existing roads. This means that vehicles enter
the wilderness area on a regular basis.
As I write this, a very competent person is in the process of putting together
a wilderness management plan. Some changes are bound to occur in the future.
Historic sites in the wilderness
Plum Orchard, a mansion built for one of the Carnegie children in the 1900's by
Lucy Coleman Carnegie, sits smack-dab in the middle of the Cumberland Island Wilderness
Area. Also in the wilderness area, sits the Settlement, where freed slaves from the
post-Civil War era lived. The only remaining building of importance is the First
African Baptist Church (founded 1897). A more known fact, but of lesser importance:
This church was the location of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Wedding in the early 90's.
Visits to Plum Orchard were previously done by ferry. Currently,
visitation to Plum Orchard has recently increased (via vehicle) and plans to further
increase the visitation (via vehicle) to Plum Orchard are being planned as I write this.
I also believe plans are being made to increase access to the Settlement, although
I'm not sure whether this will be done by vehicle, ferry, or both. The increase in
vehicular traffic is bound to affect the flora and fauna of the area as well as the
Brand new van purchased to increase visitation to Plum Orchard Mansion
Private land, Greyfield, and
Currently, there are a few tracts of land which still fall under private
ownership, including the Greyfield Inn. Most of the other tracts are owned by the
park service, but are essentially leased free of charge to the "owners."
These rights run out anywhere from 2010 to around 2100 depending on when and how the deal
was cut. The retained right holders are not allowed to further develop their
property unless prior permission is obtained. Most retained right holders are
Carnegie descendents. Others are descendants of the property holders on the North
end of the island, the only area where the Carnegies didn't own property. This
includes the Candlers (of Coca Cola fame) at High Point and the resident biologists on the
island living in the Settlement area. These land owners and right holders and their
visitors have vehicular access to the entire island. They also hold other rights
such as beach access, use of beach houses, etc... These groups have formed
organizations to battle the park service if necessary.
Non-native animals and plants
Feral livestock (including the horses and pigs) are a threat to the islands
native plants and animals. The pigs tear up the ground destroying vegetation.
They also eat loggerhead sea turtle eggs (an endangered species). The pig population
is handled via managed hunts, but the pigs still thrive. The NPS has considered
removing the pigs.
There are currently approximately 300 feral horses on the island.
Although the horses are beautiful animals, they are not native to the island and 50 horses
were released when Mrs. Lucy Carnegie died. Horses trample dunes and eat sea oats,
threatening the dune ecosystem. Evidence of the damage is visible on the North side
of the island where dunes are encroaching on Lake Whitney. The NPS has considered
various options. They could cull the population with a hunt. However, people
feel differently about horses than they do about pigs and this is not a popular option
with the public. They have also considered trapping. There are options to
spade and neuter. There are also options to shoot "contraceptive bullets"
at horses which makes them unable to conceive for 3-5 months. One plan which may be
a good compromise would be to remove the horses from the wilderness area and try to keep
the horses confined to the South end of the island.
The island currently doesn't have a fire management officer and therefore does
not perform controlled/prescribed burns. As a matter of fact, natural fires (from
lightening strikes) are extinguished once found which disrupts a very natural process.
Unfortunately, the island is long overdue for a prescribed burn. The longer
fire is delayed, the less control the park service will have when a fire does appear.
This is a danger to both residents and the flora and fauna of the island.
I managed to choose an unusual time to come to Cumberland Island. During
my time on Cumberland, the NPS purchased a portion of the Greyfield tract. During
this time the park was forced to make concessions to obtain the funding to purchase the
land. Senator Jack Kingston wanted increased visitation to Plum Orchard, a Carnegie
mansion smack dab in the middle of the wilderness area. This increase in visitation
had to occur before the funds were allocated to purchase the land per Kingston's
instructions. Previously the NPS was offering tours to Plum Orchard once a month via
ferry. Currently, the NPS is offering tours every Sunday (once a month via ferry,
and all other times via van... which travels to Plum via the main road (which enters the
wilderness area [see conflict #2 below]). Plum was first... The Settlement, even
deeper into the wilderness, would be the next target for increased visitation.
What to do? Tough call. Most importantly, I believe the wildlife
(flora AND fauna) must be protected. Second, the backpacking experience of
Cumberland needs to be protected as Cumberland is the only coastal island where
backpackers can really "get away from it all." Finally, I believe people
should have access to the various historical sites of the island. How to
compromise? I'd like to see day vehicular access to Plum Orchard end. Provide
only ferry access to Plum and only allow day visitors on the ferry. This would keep
day visitors essentially out of the wilderness area. As far as The Settlement goes,
I'd prefer to see no changes (I.E. you have to visit by foot). One suggestion made
by the resident biologist living in the Settlement area was to airlift the freakin' church
and place it somewhere more accessible to visitors. Not a bad idea! However,
as a compromise, I wouldn't mind seeing ferry access to the Settlement, but a 2 mile hike
(4 mile round trip) would be required of visitors. I think that this is within
reason. As far as pig and horse management is concerned, I think pigs should be
removed and the horses should be culled down to less than 50 horses on the South end.
Finally, the visitation must remain at 300 a day. Even day visitors, at the
end of their day, claim they don't mind waiting 3-6 months to visit the island.
Finding a deserted beach or finding solitude in a huge old growth maritime live oak forest
is worth it to nearly all visitors.
Sign reads "DO NOT LEAVE BATTERIES"; Notice the battery sitting directly
under the sign!
Deserted beach house
Chameleon hangin' on a palmetto frond
My favorite of all Cumberland creatures, the armadillo
(I didn't take this picture)
Checking e-mail from the wharf overlook
It's a beautiful morning!
The Settlement... horses owned by resident biologists
Sierra Club Trip, packing up at Yankee Paradise
Beautiful sunset over the marsh at low tide
Wild Horse and Dungeness Ruins
This little guy lived in my attic, until he was caught and relocated
Cumberland Island National Seashore map from Streets 98 (0.5 mb, very outdated... most of
these roads do not exist)
Hello! My name is Dinner.