Cumberland Conundrum: Culture vs. Environment North End Proponents at St. Marys Hearing

Article excerpt

ST. MARYS -- Public access to historic resources at the north end of Cumberland Island was the main concern of many attending yesterday's public hearing on how the national seashore should be managed.

In particular, many of 20 people who attended the hearing in St. Marys focused on African-American historical sites such as the African Baptist Church and the Chimneys as areas that needed more protection and access.

"This area cannot be overlooked or dismissed," said Ralph B. Johnson, a professor for Florida Atlantic University's school of architecture. "There seems to be a situation where cultural resources are indeed endangered."

Johnson said cultural resources and the environment can coexist if handled correctly.

He called for increased access to historic sites, saying a proposed dock at the north end of the island was only a first step in opening access to the island's African-American history.

Johnson said the National Park Service needs a way to shuttle visitors to the church, an old graveyard where many African-American residents who lived on the island were buried, and an old community called the Settlement. Many people are not willing or able to walk the estimated 3 or 4 miles to the sites from the dock, Johnson said.

The park service has actually proposed five separate management plans for various aspects of the island. Tailored specifically for the national seashore, the plans address management of the island's wilderness, cultural and natural resources and commercial services, along with a long-range interpretive plan to explain the island's history and significance.

This is the second round of public hearings on the plans, which are the culmination of nearly five years of work by a committee of academics, environmentalists and island residents. The plans consist of recommendations on the way to manage the island, but also offer alternatives for the park service to consider.

Among the recommendations is to cut the island's famous wild horse herd -- numbering about 250 -- in half and eliminating as many as 5,000 feral hogs. It also would set limits on public access to some areas, including where island residents could drive and how many visitors can hike in the wilderness together.

Like many who attended the first meeting in January who expressed reservations about the plan, Middy Ferguson asked park service officials to keep the main road on the island open to vehicle traffic and for island tours offered by the Greyfield Inn to continue. …