The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has slammed the door on the National Park Service’s motorized sightseeing tours through the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The three judge panel ruled that the motorized tours violated both the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The court wrote, “The language of the…Wilderness Act demonstrate[s] that Congress has unambiguously prohibited the Park Service from offering motorized transportation to park visitors through the wilderness area.”
“This is one of the most important rulings in the 40-year history of the Wilderness Act,” stated George Nickas, Executive Director of Wilderness Watch. “The court has upheld the principle tenet that protecting Cumberland’s wilderness character comes first, and that the uses of the area must be managed in a way that doesn’t impact its wild character. This decision is a wake-up call for the park service, which has failed to live up to its Wilderness obligations at Cumberland Island for more than two decades.”
Cumberland Island, which lies off Georgia’s southeast coast, 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.
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 court’s ruling.
Jonathan Dettmann, the attorney who represented the conservation groups explained, “This is a tremendous victory for Cumberland Island. The court’s ruling is right in line with what Congress had in mind when it designated the island’s wilderness area, and it will help the Cumberland Island Wilderness become one of the true gems of the nation’s wilderness system.”
“This suit means that the National Park Service can no longer treat the Wilderness Act as a dead letter,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has represented a number of Park Service employees frustrated by the agency allowing development and incompatible uses of wilderness. “If motor tours were allowed in the wilds of Cumberland Island, no stretch of wilderness would be safe from similar intrusions.”
Attorneys representing the conservation groups include Jon Dettmann and Anne Mahle from Faegre & Benson, and Donald Stack from Stack and Associates.
Wilderness Watch is the only national organization dedicated solely to the protection of all areas within the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness Watch is based in Missoula, Montana and has an active chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. (www.wildernesswatch.org)
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national organization that promotes environmental ethics and government accountability. PEER works on behalf of agency resource professionals to effect fundamental change in the way their agencies conduct the public’s business. (www.peer.org)