ST. MARYS — Business owners in St. Marys have complained for years about the limited number of visitors allowed each day on Cumberland Island National Seashore.
A cap of 300 visitors a day was set by the National Park Service when passenger ferry service was established to the island after the national seashore was created in 1972.
Gary Ingram, superintendent at the national seashore, said he has been questioned about the limit frequently during his two years on the job at the barrier island.
Ingram now is asking his superiors permission to conduct a study to determine if the barrier island can handle more daily visitors without adverse impacts.
“I’ve been asked so many times how that 300 number came up,” he said. “There’s no science to it.”
Ingram said the study would use accurate information to determine the maximum number of visitors the island can handle.
Local merchants like Jerry Brandon, owner of Riverview Hotel, believe the limit of 300 people a day — the equivalent of two passenger ferries filled to capacity — was a handy way to set a cap. He said a study is long overdue.
“They’ve been planning to study this for 35 years, and they didn’t do a thing,” he said. “I lose a lot of rooms because the boats are full.”
After Congress designated Cumberland a national seashore, there were plans to allow more than 1,000 people a day on the island. Some environmental groups, however, expressed concern about the impact so many people could have on the largest barrier island in Georgia and one of the least developed on the East Coast.
Brandon said he believes the study will show an increase in the number of visitors will not adversely affect the island.
“I’ve always felt like they can double it,” he said.
Ingram said he’s uncertain how increasing the number of visitors allowed would impact the island. He said there are only about 20 days a year when the ferry sells out.
“It’s not like every day we’re at 300. We’re far from it,” he said.
While the environmental impacts of adding more visitors are among the most important issues, there are lots of other factors to consider. An increase in visitors may require the concessionaire to purchase more vessels to accommodate the increase in visitors.
It may also require making changes to the infrastructure in campgrounds, bathrooms and other facilities on the island, as well as hiring additional staff.
At least one environmental group, Wild Cumberland, has voiced opposition to increasing the number of visitors allowed each day to protect “the health of the island and the visitors’ experience.”
“Increasing the number of visitors will also directly increase the human impact on the island’s already fragile ecosystems and would contradict the very purpose for which Cumberland Island was preserved as a national seashore,” the organization’s website states. “Furthermore, the Wilderness Act indicates that an area is set aside for wilderness when it ‘has outstanding opportunities for solitude.’ Nature lovers cherish the increasingly rare opportunity to enjoy the peace and quiet of lands untouched by the impacts of tourism and development.”