By Christi Lambert, Director of Coastal and Marine Conservation in Georgia
Featured photo (above): Georgia coast © Tom Wilson
I grew up in the hills of north Georgia, but have called coastal Georgia home for more than 20 years. Here, every day is different. The colors of the sunrise are never quite the same. The shape of the shoreline shifts. Change defines this wonderful, dynamic place.
I understand why people from all over the world travel here: to experience murmurations – a whirling flock of migratory shorebirds taking wing overhead. To eat oysters collected from a reef that grows at the water’s edge and to watch the ever-changing tide.
Yet too often today, the patterns of change take shape as new condos, homes and hotels interrupt the sweeping views of marsh, maritime forests and ocean. From Tybee Island, all the way south to Cumberland, private landowners and local communities have demonstrated that they can have the vision and forethought necessary to protect Georgia’s globally significant coast. There is always more we can do together – and right now, that means having open and purposeful dialogue about the potential for greater protection on Cumberland Island.
I first came to Cumberland, the state’s largest and southernmost island, as a graduate student. In many ways, it looks the same as it did all those years ago. Wind sweeps across the beach forming trails in the sand, creating ancient patterns and reshaping the island every day. At 40 square miles in size, Cumberland is a significant nesting site for loggerhead sea turtles, and like all of our state’s barrier islands, it helps shield the mainland from storms.
Much of the island is set aside for public recreation and conservation, but it wasn’t always that way. Cumberland was once a gathering place for the Carnegie family, who bought land on the island in the early 1880s. Descendants of the Carnegies, the Candlers and other landowners worked alongside the National Park Service in the 1960s to create the Cumberland Island National Seashore, which now boasts18 miles of undeveloped beach.
As a landowner on Cumberland, The Nature Conservancy has a vested interest in making sure the island is conserved – because it is truly that special. Like many of the other island landowners, we want to ensure that its unique ecological character lasts forever. The Conservancy’s work in Georgia began on the coast in the 1960s. We are known for finding creative solutions that balance the needs of people and nature, and I’m proud to be a part of our ongoing commitment to land conservation.
A good example of that legacy is Wassaw Island, 10,000+ acres off the coast of Savannah with expansive salt marshes and live oak and slash pine woodlands, which was purchased in 1866 by George Parsons, a wealthy businessman from Maine. Out of love for this incredible place, the Parsons family took steps to protect it. In 1969 they worked with The Nature Conservancy, and through strong partnerships, Wassaw ultimately became a national wildlife refuge. Each time I visit Wassaw, I leave with a deep feeling of appreciation because I believe when people follow their passions and leadership instincts to be good stewards of the coast, we all benefit.
A few years ago, the owners of Little St. Simons Island fulfilled a dream – for themselves and for all of us who care about the Georgia coast. They placed the entire 11,000+ acre island — home to meandering tidal creeks, expansive undeveloped beach and old-growth maritime live oak forests — under a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. Flocks of shorebirds twist and turn in the air and land to feast on horseshoe crab eggs, and as darkness settles in, the stars emerge over windswept beaches with unforgettable intensity. Protecting Little St. Simons was not a quick or easy task. It takes courage to open your mind to new possibilities, but a place as special and as threatened as coastal Georgia calls us to look far down the road and commit to the future we want our children and grandchildren to see.
St. Simons is probably the most visited of Georgia’s islands. A few years ago, dedicated and determined people, including visionary leaders, tireless volunteers and supporters who gave financial gifts large and small came together here to protect Cannon’s Point, 608 acres of maritime forest, salt marsh and river frontage. Now owned and managed by the St. Simons Land Trust, this open-to-the-public treasure stands to serve as a nationwide model for preservation, conservation and nature-centered recreation and education. The Nature Conservancy holds a conservation easement on this land, meaning we help guide how the property is cared for so visitors can experience the thrill and learning that can happen when they are immersed in habitat for oysters, birds, fish, manatees and other wildlife. When people come together, we can find ways to balance community growth and conservation.
Over time, the interests of conservation and preservation, private landowners and public access have worked together on the Georgia coast, including on Cumberland. I am hopeful that the same approach will prevail now as a new generation of landowners and local leaders determine the fate of 1,000 acres on the island.
Walking the beaches of Cumberland or Little St. Simons or exploring the maritime forest at Cannon’s Point does something to people – I’ve seen it over and over again. It is easy to reveal your true self in a place that has so few distractions. Immersed in natural wonder, people can connect on a fundamental level. And that’s what Cumberland Island needs: for people to find the courage to work toward an informed solution that honors all who have already helped protect what is here and to embrace the promise we make to future generations.