Looking upriver, it can be awfully easy to get depressed about the environmental state of affairs around here. When the abyss of hopelessness approaches, there’s only one antidote: Go outside (and enjoy it while it lasts).
Rounding past the water side of Skidaway State Park’s Big Ferry Trail, the landscape couldn’t be more pristine: Stately oaks stand like sentries across the river as the tides of the Skidaway Narrows lap gently at the marshgrass. Sunlight sends shimmers across the waves. The drone of traffic from the Diamond Causeway faded a few yards from the parking lot, and the only sounds here are the cheerful warblings of wrens and the crunch of pine needles underfoot.
It’s a scene that hasn’t changed much since Prohibition–era bootleggers tended their moonshine stills a few feet away and maybe even thousands of years further back, when indigenous peoples tossed their used oyster shells into massive piles on the banks. Far from where the giant tankers muscle in and out of the main channel of the Savannah River lies even more untouched pulchritude, miles and miles of coastline and marsh on practically deserted barrier islands. In fact, if you keep your head turned south towards the coastline, you might think we have a pretty good thing going here.
The view could have been very different, and such primitive beauty is no happenstance, reminds AASU history professor Dr. Mark Finlay. While Georgia’s rivers have been pummeled by development and industry over the last century, many of its coastal islands remain remarkably unmolested thanks to hard fights by a few wealthy families and the largely unheralded local environmental movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
How our nearby islands were rescued from greed is the stuff of high drama, documented in a forthcoming book by Dr. Finlay. We’ve met to walk the trail and put context to his research: What’s the fun — or the point — in talking about the wonders of nature from inside a stuffy office?
“One of the themes is how each of these islands has been saved in a slightly different way,” he explains as we pass through a curtain of moss 30 feet high, shrouding the theater of the forest. He adds that though South Carolina and Florida may have once shared a similar ecology, most of their once untouched isles are now covered with condos and golf courses.
“Georgia’s distinction is that these islands were owned by single families. They weren’t cut up into parcels over the last two to three hundred years, so when the time came to decide what to do with them, there were only a handful of people you had to negotiate with.”
We have those folks to thank for the unspoiled vistas. When Skidaway was developed in the 1960s, plans to pop another bridge over to Wassaw Island panicked the Parsons family, who went into secret negotiations with the Nature Conservancy to sell the island to the federal government. It was the moneyed Carnegies who instigated the transition of Cumberland Island into a National Seashore in 1972, and philanthropy is what keeps St. Catherine’s Island quiet and traffic–free.
But the coastal conservation movement wasn’t just for rich people: Dr. Finlay also documents how Savannah citizens — from hunters to hippies to the Junior League — rallied in the late ‘60s to stop oil companies from mining the coastal waters for phosphate, the ubiquitous ingredient in everything from explosives to dishwashing detergent.
“Florida’s coast and South Carolina’s coast were the center of this industry, so it was logical that Georgia would have phosphate. They started their explorations right here —” he points out across the Narrows — “And they found these huge deposits 100 feet underwater.”
The plan was to scoop it up, dump it into new islands and build those condos and golf courses on top.
That disaster was averted when grassroots groups pressured Gov. Lester Maddox to demand more scientific study that rendered the project unfeasible. The notably racist Maddox was certainly no cultural hero, but sending the oil companies packing set the stage for Georgia’s conservation movement, one that can count many victories in the face of tremendous challenges.
“The loggerhead turtle population is growing faster than the subspecies that nests in Florida. That’s over the last few decades,” points out Dr. Finlay. “You can sort of link that scientific change with the historical events.”
(He adds that science has saved Georgia more than once. A salient point that should be invoked loudly and often, notably when discussing the unproven efficacy of certain river reoxygenating technologies.)
One cannot talk about the preservation of Georgia’s coastal islands without a long, deep discussion of Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, the feisty matriarch of Ossabaw Island. Her famous 18–year wrangle to turn her family’s island into the state’s first heritage preserve takes up a large chunk of Dr. Finlay’s book and will be his main subject when he addresses the Ossabaw Island Foundation at its annual meeting this Thursday, Jan. 10 at the Coastal Georgia Center.
The meeting coincides with the week of Sandy’s 100th birthday. This plucky dowager has fiercely protected Ossabaw for almost half her life and still lives in the family mansion amongst the live oaks and saw palmettos. She understands that history can change tracks and will continue her plea to keep up the fight at the meeting via Skype.
“I really am worried about what’s going to happen to Ossabaw,” she invokes in a video taken at the foundation’s 2011 pig roast as attendees dined on barbecue culled from the island’s wild herd.
“You know what the world is like. Nothing matters except machines and things.”
Though she places great faith in executive director Elizabeth Dubose and educational director Paul Pressley, she understands that when she passes and Ossabaw reverts entirely back to the state, the era of her personal vigilance will end.
“I’m gonna croak pretty soon, and I want you to be aware because this kind of thing is sneaky,” she warns, a call to the children and grandchildren of the disparate groups who saved Georgia’s coast 50 years ago to unify and “be an army if this place is threatened.”
Though the recent acquisition of Boyles Island on the Altamaha River is a coup for Georgia’s conservation movement, the current administration’s track record on protecting our precious resources is far from stellar.
Happy Birthday, Ms. West. May your legacy live on forever.
For more information about Ossabaw Island Foundation Annual Meeting, go to ossabawisland.org.