While both work to promote sea turtle conservation, the controversy over Jekyll Island Authority’s proposed beach lighting ordinance revision potentially reveals in recent internal JIA communications substantial divisions between Jekyll’s governing body and environmental advocacy group One Hundred Miles.
More than 600 pages of JIA emails were provided Tuesday to The News by One Hundred Miles, which obtained them through an open records request.
A discussion of a letter to the editor by One Hundred Miles’ Catherine Ridley regarding ordinance changes led to a July 1 email from JIA Executive Director Jones Hooks to several top JIA and Georgia Sea Turtle Center staff members. In the letter Hooks expressed frustration with One Hundred Miles’ letter stance regarding the JIA’s proposed beach lighting changes and asserts One Hundred Miles’ use of the issue for financial gain.
“With the amount of money we continue to spend on turtles, I think it is absurd that 100 Miles is making us out to be the bad guys,” Hooks wrote. “Kate, you may want to pull together this group....look at the letter to the editor that 100 Miles distributed this weekend – the one that Alexa shared — — they are using this issue to try and raise money! Thanks! Everyone, it’s time to wage battle!”
Kate is JIA Senior Director of Marketing Kate Harris, and Alexa is JIA Director of Marketing & Communications Alexa Orndoff.
Hooks clarified the email’s language Thursday to The News.
“With Kate being here, I just said that, hey, I don’t like the fact that we’re being painted as though we don’t care about sea turtles, or that we don’t have people who are fully committed to this cause,” Hooks said. “And, so it’s time for us not to sit back anymore and just act like we will take anything. We need to put our story out there, because if we don’t put our message out there, then nobody else is going to put our message out there.”
Ridley said neither One Hundred Miles nor the St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project has attempted to raise money off the beach lighting issue. She said the controversy stemming from the lighting ordinance could have been avoided if JIA worked with the state Department of Natural Resources early on, instead of bringing in DNR staff later in the process.
“Rather than ‘waging battle’ on those of us who disagree with them, Jekyll should focus their conservation efforts on doing what’s best for sea turtles,” Ridley said. “Further, as Mr. Hooks repeatedly notes, JIA has a financial investment in the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Yet it would be foolish to think that spending money automatically equates to sound conservation policy.”
Hooks, in a Wednesday reply to The News, said JIA and Georgia Sea Turtle Center staff are widely respected as experts and leaders in their fields, who on a daily basis are the closest to Jekyll’s sea turtles.
“It may be more accurate to say that One Hundred Miles has identified the JIA as a political opponent, perhaps in service of the organization’s fundraising and membership development efforts,” Hooks said. “In addition to creating public perception of an adversarial relationship between the (Department of Natural Resources) and (Jekyll Island Authority), One Hundred Miles appears to question the expertise and commitment of Georgia Sea Turtle Center and JIA conservation staff members.”
A series of emails about One Hundred Miles’ Naturalist 101 lecture with DNR sea turtle program coordinator Mark Dodd gave the appearance of staff attending to check out the opposition to see if there was anything said to which needed responding. Hooks said there was no attempt to conceal identities of JIA and GSTC staffers who attended, but they did “take care as to make sure that their presence did not draw attention away from the presenters or distract other audience members, so they did not arrive in their official uniforms.”
Also — detailed in the emails — complicating the beach lighting matter is when JIA brought in DNR. The state agency was brought on later in the ordinance amending process, which is what led to the May 13 letter from DNR Wildlife Resources Division Director Rusty Garrison to JIA Conservation Director Ben Carswell, in which he lays out a number of concerns.
Hooks, in a July 1 email to Carswell, said he regrets going with the plan to bring in DNR later.
“You seemed emphatic and that we should be in-charge and then to bring DNR along later, but politically that wasn’t going to fly, and I felt that in my gut,” Hooks wrote. “We could have prevented all of this by working through things with DNR ahead of time rather than the way we did it. After all, we are now spending lots of additional time with peripheral activities as well as the DNR meetings that we would have had to have either way. So, sometimes, it’s just easier to get it right the first time.”
Along with the JIA and non-governmental organizations like One Hundred Miles, DNR represents another influential coastal entity in which their goals overlap in sea turtle conservation. JIA and DNR met Thursday to take steps toward a workable beach lighting ordinance.
Regarding the meeting, Hooks said it was collaborative and positive. There’s at least one more meeting between JIA and DNR anticipated on the matter.
“I think that everyone around the table agrees on one thing for sure, and that is that we want to do the very best we possibly can to make sure that no efforts are taken that would harm the good progress that we’ve made, as far as promoting sea turtle nesting on Jekyll Island,” Hooks said. “It was a very good, very productive session, I thought.”
Wes Robinson, DNR’s director of public and government affairs, said the agency’s relationship with JIA is fantastic.
“I’d characterize our relationship with JIA as a wonderful and fruitful partnership,” Robinson said. “We work collaboratively with them on a routine basis and our staff work together on projects regularly. For instance, the Sea Turtle Center operates under our permit and we work with them in general on the sea turtle program and that has been very successful and is something we are very proud of.”
Going forward, Ridley said JIA has the opportunity to emerge on the right side of the beach-lighting issue by working collaboratively with DNR and other partners, and that a good outcome for the sea turtles would be good for everyone involved.
She also said it’s important for those who are concerned to be heard — a large number of the emails involved in the open records request included those from members of the public, including former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, worried about lighting causing a problem for the turtles.
“Too often, people care about an issue but aren’t willing to advocate for it, because they’re afraid of putting their name out there or because they don’t think it will make a difference,” Ridley said. “But that’s how change happens, and you can see the impact it’s had here. Jekyll Island is a state park, and its employees are public servants. They are charged with the protection of our precious natural resources, and as citizens, we have every right to hold them accountable.”