Wednesday, June 13, 2018


This Georgia barrier island is only accessible by boat. It is Richmond Hill's barrier island and if it were accessible by bridges, it would be our beach access and about 10 miles to the beach from my rectory! But alas I have never been there though it is in my front yard.

The island next to it to the south is another uninhabited island, St. Catherine Island, home of the Georgia Franciscan martyrs  which our diocese is seeking canonization.

If Ossabaw Island had public access it would be another Hilton Head Island and a tourist destination:

Ossabaw still wild after 40 years

Ossabaw Island Heritage Preserve is about to turn 40, with Friday marking the anniversary of the day in 1978 when then-governor George Busbee signed the Executive Order making the barrier island Georgia’s first heritage preserve.

As it’s been for millennia, the 26,000-acre island in Chatham County is home to alligators, otters and bald eagles. It plays nursery to sea turtles, with 314 loggerhead nests erupting with hatchlings on its beaches last year. And there’s still not a single condo near the 13-mile stretch of beach on this island, which is 12 times bigger than neighboring Tybee.In these respects, Georgia has “absolutely” achieved what it set out to do with the purchase of Ossabaw and its designation as a preserve, said Patricia Barmeyer, who helped shepherd the deal as a young attorney working in the office of the Attorney General. Ossabaw is still accessible only by boat and there’s no commercial development.

“Ossabaw has been preserved,” Barmeyer said. “You can argue if it’s been utilized in the best possible way. You can debate that. But nobody made any mistakes. It is as it was except to the extent nature has done her work on it.”

The development of nearby Hilton Head Island in the 1960s alerted many in Georgia to the prospect of intensive development on barrier islands here, Barmeyer said. It motivated the state to acquire land on barrier islands.

And it motivated Ossabaw’s Eleanor Torrey “Sandy” West, whose parents had bought the island for $150,000 in the 1920s, to figure out a way to keep it protected despite a mounting tax burden.

West and her family sold the island to the state for $8 million, half its assessed value, with the additional guarantee Ossabaw would be a heritage preserve used only for “natural, scientific and cultural study, research and education and environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of the island’s ecosystem.” Philanthropist and longtime president of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, donated $4 million toward the purchase and the state provided the rest. West, who was 65 at the time of the sale, remained on a 23-acre life estate on the island until 2016 when she moved to an assisted living facility in Savannah where she celebrated her 105th birthday in January. Her life estate ownership remains in place.

The Heritage Preserve designation prohibits construction of a bridge or a causeway connecting Ossabaw to the mainland or other barrier islands. The order places Ossabaw Island under the management of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, who continues to be its manager. In 1998, the not-for-profit Ossabaw Island Foundation and the DNR signed an agreement giving the foundation the right and responsibility to manage programming and facilities on Ossabaw Island in accordance with the Heritage Preserve guidelines. Over the last 20 years, the foundation has shared Ossabaw Island with thousands of people from across Georgia and around the world through natural, scientific and cultural programming on the island and on the mainland; and has restored, renovated or stabilized 10 historic buildings on Ossabaw Island for related use.

“So many Georgians in the 1970s had the wisdom to see our coast as a treasure worth preserving, and to see Ossabaw Island as a unique jewel among many coastal jewels,” said Elizabeth DuBose, executive director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. “Forty years later, thanks to the Heritage Preserve protections, Ossabaw is not only a critical element of the coastal ecosystem, but also allows scientists and historians to share important information about our nation’s past. On Ossabaw, new information is revealed every year through archaeology, ecological study, and related historical research on the mainland.”

Last year the foundation brought 1,100 people from 28 states and 12 countries to Ossabaw for programs ranging from indigo workshops to artists’ retreats. Even coastal residents who never visit Ossabaw benefit from it, said Jerry McCullom, an ecologist who was among the first DNR employees to live on the island.

“The ecological significance of all the barrier islands can’t be overstated,” said McCullom, who later became the head of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. “They’re protecting the mainland from catastrophic storms. They’re providing a real look at what the coastline looks like if it’s natural.”

After completing her role in creating the heritage preserve, Barmeyer has continued to support Ossabaw, returning to visit often and serving on the board of the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

“It’s a magical place,” she said.


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

The barrier islands are little (well, not so "little") gems. As ecotones (regions of transition between biological communities) they offer incredible beauty and biological diversity.

Oddities can also be found. The oak for the construction of The USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - was harvested from St. Simons Island, three islands south of Ossabaw. Oaks growing on the windward side of the island along the oceanfront, were bent into atypical shapes by the constant ocean breezes. These natural angles were stronger than those created by piecing timber together and forming the needed shapes in a boatwright's shop.

The micro-environments on the islands can be changed almost overnight. A severe storm can cut through the dune lines, emptying a brackish pond and turning it into a tidal salt water slough. Most of the islands have had to contend with salt water intrusion into their wells, even deep wells, as industries and cities on the mainland have drawn more and more water from the aquifers that we rely on for drinking water.

I spent two summers on Wassaw Island, the island just north of Ossabaw, tagging loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta)as they came ashore to lay eggs. The largest we examined had a carapace of 103 cm (40.5 inches). She deposited, if memory serves, an amazing 133 eggs in the nest she had dug using only her hind flippers.

St. Catherines Island, which you mention, is also privately owned by a foundation that seeks to preserve it from development.

The jewel in the crown, though, is Cumberland, the last of our Golden Isles before Florida. A National Seashore, the island was once owned by the Carnegie family. Access to Cumberland is highly restricted in order to preserve it's natural state. When you walk through the island onto the beach, you step onto 18 miles of glorious beach, and, usually, you see not one soul! You may encounter the feral horses whose ancestors may have been brought to Cumberland by the Spanish!

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

There are lemurs and monkeys on some of these islands too!

rcg said...

I love this sort of thing. It is wonderful that the state is preserving it. Much of the most beautiful and natural areas of New York state are the remnants of personal estates of the wealthy barons of the previous century. They understood the true value of what they had and found ways to ensure its survival as a natural wonder. I am making my much more modest contribution to this effort by purchasing 50 acres of Appalachian forest in eastern Ohio. There are natural springs, ponds, and a small space cleared 100 years ago. The rest is primeval and I intend to keep it that way but manage it in a similarly as the estate wardens in northern England. I will need to monitor for disease and species encroachment but will strive to have it flourish naturally as much as possible.

Dan said...

It'd be a lot better if it was populated by refugees.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

"The St. Catherines Island Lemur Program maintains several free-ranging troops of ring-tailed lemurs on the Island. The program supports conservation research into the behavior of these endangered lower Primates."

Anonymous said...

And lots of rattlesnakes....they can swim, as one of the bloggers noted recently!!!! If out at night there, watch where you step!

Gene said...

I have spent a lot of time in the Everglades and in the Okeefenokee collecting and photographing reptiles, as well as camping and fishing. They are wonderful places that need to be protected and fought for. There are those who will not be happy until all are paved over and lined with condos and Wal Marts.

Anonymous 2 said...

What a lovely thread!

Dan: Huh? I don’t get the point.