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The Natural Georgia Series: Barrier Islands

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.


Georgia's Barrier IslandsHans Neuhauser.

By Hans Neuhauser

About a dozen years ago, I had an opportunity to fly on a government plane along the entire southeast coast. There were only a few green stretches of the coast remaining where nature still held dominion over the developments of man. Most of the rest of the coast had been developed.

The flight reenforced in my mind the importance of considering the future of Georgia's barrier islands, both individually and as a group. With some notable exceptions, most of the barrier islands on the southeast coast have been developed. That's not the case in Georgia. Thanks to the efforts of a small number of individuals and organizations, 10 of Georgia's 14 major barrier islands have been preserved by either public or private initiative.

What is equally impressive about our barrier islands is the diversity of uses that they accommodate. If you want to play golf and tennis and be pampered like royalty-and pay handsomely for the privilege-there are places on Georgia's coast that will be glad to accommodate you1. If you'd rather be pampered in a natural environment, there are other islands to visit2 . If you are of average means and want to enjoy the coast with some creature comforts, there are islands for you3. Do you want a wilderness experience where spiritual and aesthetic values predominate4? Are you a scientist seeking to unlock the secrets of the natural world5? Or an archaeologist seeking to understand how native Americans lived before the advent of Europeans6? A historian seeking to understand the effects of colliding cultures7? Hunting8? Eco-tourist9? There are places on the barrier islands for all of you.

Taken as a whole, Georgia's barrier islands accommodate almost all reasonable uses except heavy industry. It is a multiple use system. Unlike the classic concept of multiple use articulated by Gifford Pinchot and others, where one tract of land is used for multiple purposes, Georgia's multiple use system is based on each island having its own primary use and a number of compatible secondary uses. It is the combination of uses that makes Georgia's 100 miles of coast a multiple use system.

On Sapelo Island, the primary use is research on coastal processes, the understanding of which supports more enlightened coastal management. It was here that Dr. Eugene Odum and his colleagues at the University of Georgia Marine Institute first articulated the value of the salt marsh as one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. This understanding initiated the growing worldwide commitment to conserve these environments. Research is not the only use of Sapelo. Protecting the culture of the Hog Hammock community and insuring its economic survival is a key function of Sapelo. Educating visitors about the natural and cultural history of the island, is another important use. So, too, is wildlife management, producing deer and turkeys for hunters to test their skills. Historic preservation of the lighthouse, the Spalding/Coffin/Reynolds mansion, the Native American shell ring, and other sites is another use of growing importance.

On Cumberland Island, the unique contribution to regional patterns of different island use is as a wilderness for the general public to enjoy. Because of Cumberland's special natural conditions, such an experience is available nowhere else on earth. Yet Cumberland also accommodates a number of secondary and compatible uses including recreation, historic preservation, natural area protection, education, and research.

Ossabaw Island has a very different important primary use: that of an investment in the future. Just like money you set aside in a savings account, to be used at some time in the future, so, too, have Georgians set aside Ossabaw. Thanks to the generosity of the island's previous owner, Sandy West, we can leave the decision as to Ossabaw's future use to future generations. In the meantime, uses that are compatible with this investment strategy are possible.

Every so often, a use is proposed that threatens Georgia's multiple use barrier island system. Outside real estate speculation in the Hog Hammock community threatens not only its unique and important culture, but also the other uses of Sapelo Island. On Cumberland, special interests wanting to drive vehicles all over the island threaten to eliminate the unique wilderness experience. Second homebuilders threaten the integrity of the National Historic Register district on the north end of Tybee Island.

Vigilance, and where necessary, action by concerned citizens and organizations such as the Georgia Wildlife Federation will always be necessary to safeguard each island's unique contributions from incompatible uses. It's a price I will gladly pay. I hope you will, too.

1 Sea Island, St. Simons Island, 2 Little St. Simons, Cumberland, 3 Jekyll, Tybee, 4 Cumberland, Wolf, Wassaw, 5 Sapelo, St. Catherines, Wassaw, 6 St. Catherines, Sapelo, 7 Sapelo, St. Catherines, Wassaw, 8 Sapelo, Ossabaw, Cumberland, Blackbeard, Wassaw, 9 Little St. Simons, Wassaw, Cumberland

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