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Cumberland Island - The Shrinking Sanctuary

On February 9th, 2018 the Nassau County Sierra Club hosted a screening of my film, Cumberland Island - The Shrinking Sanctuary, ( to a full house at the Nassau County Library at Fernandina Beach, Florida. We screened my film and afterwards were bombarded with comments from Cumberland Island landowners who made up the majority of those in attendance. If you have seen the film, you will notice that first off, I don’t attack any particular persons or groups on Cumberland for their potential development of about 1,000 acres. It is not my place to do so because in all honesty, they own the land that is in question and I am but an environmentalist from the other side of the state pushing my viewpoint on their property. In my mind, I see the potential development of a place, once thought to be protected and preserved forever as symptomatic of a much larger issue which we, as a nation, need to deal with. Let me explain:

Have you ever looked at the growth rings on an old tree? In essence, they show the growth history of this giant which has now either died from disease, weather or chain saw. Each year, the tree forms new cells, arranged in concentric circles called annual rings or annual growth rings.

As you count inward from the bark into the center of the tree, you head back in time. You can determine periods of heavy growth due to good weather and periods of stagnancy due to bad weather by the thickness of each ring and sometimes the coloring.

For us, Google has created a way to watch our world going through the changes in time and it is called Google Time Lapse:

Watching this satellite view of the earth, you can witness the changes in our planet from 1984 to 2016. Through this wonderful tool you can watch the climate change just like rings on a tree. You can look at the snow covered areas of 1984 in the islands around Greenland and see a noticeable and indisputable change from white to gray to green. You can watch sand move from barrier islands, cutting away at one shore and being deposited on another.

But, to me, the most dramatic thing to watch is the change of our world through development. In just a little over thirty years you can see how once wild areas are now shopping complexes and once remote beachfronts are now filled with condos and hotels. To some, this is progress at its best. To me, this is a sign of unbridled growth with no regard for what we are leaving behind. I’m not saying we should be saving every piece of land and stop growth, what I am saying is we need to take a step back and look at this satellite view very closely. It shows us what we are losing and that is land. Precious land. Those places where children can go to experience their natural surroundings. Where they can go play and catch frogs, climb trees and lay in the grass watching the clouds move slowly overhead. Its in these places which cumulatively, are evolving very rapidly, that a child could experience grounding and life-shaping moments. Think about it, if you grew up in a rural area like I did, watch how that area has changed in just a little over thirty years. Will kids today be able to experience anything close to what you enjoyed and discovered? Will they be restricted to safety zones of manicured lawns and fenced in back yards? Will they really ever be able to just enjoy nature without the noise of cars, leaf blowers and barking dogs? Will they be able to go into the back yard at night and catch lightening bugs or watch the stars without the glare of street lights? And will they know what they are missing since they have never experienced it to begin with?

What you don’t see with the satellite view are all the things that come at ground level with growth. Depending on the area, with each new home or business that is created nature is displaced. Animals who once roamed from one area to another for food and shelter, now have to cross roads and highways, many times getting trapped in between and ending up as yet another road kill unnoticeable to those rushing from point a to point b.

With new growth comes pesticides and herbicides. The US National Library of Medicine/ National Institutes of Health estimates that in the US alone, over 1 billion pounds are used annually. Thats a lot of chemicals!

So, back to Cumberland Island. At our meeting the landowners very clearly expressed their views of keeping Cumberland free from becoming a developed island like Hilton Head or Amelia Islands. Repeatedly, landowners told the audience that they are not unlike any of us who were sitting there listening. That they have been misrepresented in media accounts. That is great if it is true and I honestly hope it is. Because, right now, with our current administration, over eleven million acres of National Monuments and two hundred million acres of Marine National Monuments are being reviewed for status change (US Dept. of Interior stats). These are wild areas, places where average people like myself go to escape when we can muster up enough money to take a long weekend away from work. These are places where people from the city go to escape the noise and traffic if only to recharge and reset. They are places where we can take our kids and show them what being in nature truly means. And they are a valuable and irreplaceable part of our world, just like Cumberland Island.

In retrospect, there were many things that were said by the landowners that I feel didn’t add up and needed rebuttal that never happened. A wonderful book written by Lary M. Dilsaver entitled: Cumberland Island National Seashore: A History of Conservation Conflict is well worth a read if you want to learn the complicated history honestly and objectively. On the National Park Service website, Chapter 3 entitled: Creating Cumberland Island National Seashore is available for reading online dilsaver/chap3.pdf

Finally, asked after the meeting, one, concerned citizen attendee felt as though the issue had been solved, which is not the case at all. Granted, the tone was very positive and it was peaceful, even though no tough issues were discussed. Nonetheless, I came away feeling hopeful that these once faceless landowners now were real people in my eyes. Many feel that meetings like this one can be the start of dialogue and compromise. The landowners seemed genuine in their preservation message and I hope for those of us who didn’t inherit acreage on an island, that message will be true.

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