Washington, DC — Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the National Park Service’s (NPS) decision to authorize motorized vehicle tours in the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The suit, filed by Wilderness Watch, Defenders of Wild Cumberland (DWC) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), seeks to stop motorized tours in the Wilderness to protect the area’s primitive character and to bring the NPS management of the area into compliance with the law.
Cumberland Island, which lies off Georgia’s southeast coast just north of the Florida border, is the largest undeveloped barrier island on the eastern seaboard. The entire island was designated as the Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972. Ten years later Congress designated 8,800 acres of the heart of the Island’s north end as the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The island provides shelter for over 300 species of birds and nesting sites for sea turtles, including the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. Because of its incredible ecological significance, Cumberland Island was named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1984.
Conservationists oppose the tours, citing that the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles in wilderness except in rare cases such as emergencies. The suit also alleges that the commercial nature of some tours violates the Wilderness Act’s limitation on commercial use. While some of the tours are operated by the NPS itself, the majority are conducted by Greyfield Inn, a private corporation. In both cases, before authorizing the tours, the NPS failed to consider the environmental impacts of the tours or to elicit public review and comment.
“This is the only place in the country where the national park service drives tourists around in the Wilderness,” says George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “It sets a terrible precedent for Wilderness everywhere and flies in the face of the Wilderness Act.”
Hal Wright, director of DWC noted, “It is not our goal to end all tours on the island. We’re only concerned with those motorized tours which take place in Wilderness, where motor vehicles are prohibited by law.”
Most of the popular visitor sites lie outside the Wilderness boundary on the south end of the island and tours to those areas would not be affected by the lawsuit.
“The lawsuit is needed because the entrenched politics surrounding Cumberland Island have prevented Park Service managers from fulfilling their legal obligations,” stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer.
“Congress made it clear that the Cumberland Island Wilderness must be managed by the same rules as all other Wildernesses in the United States. Restrictions, like those excluding motor vehicles, were put in place to achieve this goal. If we allow motor vehicle tours here, then we could have them anywhere in America’s Wilderness,” added Nickas.
Attorneys representing the conservation groups include Jon Dettmann and Anne Mahle from Faegre & Benson, and Dan Meyer, PEER’s General Counsel.
Wilderness Watch is based in Missoula, Montana. Founded in 1989, it is the only national organization dedicated solely to the protection and proper stewardship of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness Watch has an active chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. (www.wildernesswatch.org)
Defenders of Wild Cumberland (DWC) was founded in 1995 to preserve as Wilderness the lands, bays and marshes of Cumberland Island National Seashore, and to assure that such areas are managed in a manner which promotes and perpetuates the Wilderness character of the land, and protects those ecosystems critical to the island’s biodiversity. DWC is based in St. Marys, Georgia. (www.wildcumberland.org)