Some of the most powerful figures in Georgia politics are weighing in on the future of Cumberland Island, the largest undeveloped barrier island on the eastern seaboard.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) and retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D) and Reps. David Scott (D), Sanford Bishop (D) and Jack Kingston (R) are sponsoring legislation that essentially would allow motorized tours to run along roads on the remote island wilderness area.
Tours run by the National Park Service and an island inn have been the frequent target of litigation, and the legislation aims to clear up ambiguities.
However, some environmentalists view it as a case study for wilderness-land use because it would remove the protected status from three roads now only available to the island's residents and guests. They believe removing the roads from their wilderness designation, which limits even park officials' use, could set a precedent.
"If you can do it here, why wouldn't you try to do it somewhere else?" asked Julie Mayfield, vice president of the Georgia Conservancy.
Locals say the issue is not worth all the fuss by lawmakers. "In my 10 years of working on this, I haven't been able to figure out what the political switch is here. There's no voters down here. There's just a handful of people," said Hal Wright, an attorney in nearby St. Marys and president of Defenders of Wild Cumberland.
This is not the usual coastal community, though. The descendants of the Candler, Rockefeller and Carnegie fortunes maintain estates on the island, which was once a regular stomping ground for the rich. The Carnegie family donated tracts that formed the basis of the Cumberland Island National Seashore, designated by Congress as a federal wilderness area in 1982.
Although about half of the 18-mile island is considered wilderness, the island is replete with a mix of historic structures and modern buildings. About 50 people live on the island year-round.
Kingston, whose congressional district includes the island, said a compromise was reached between the island's residents and environmentalists who supported a more restricted atmosphere five years ago. Shortly after, though, other environmental groups sued.
"The problem we are having is that the environmental groups are constantly changing the goal posts," Kingston said. "You can't find the head of the snake because one group is saying something and another is saying something else."
Opponents of the bill have focused on the Greyfield Inn, which has for decades operated truck tours along the island's primary street, a dirt thoroughfare.
"This is not some new, high-tech bus tour," said Gogo Ferguson, a descendant of the Carnegie family and the inn's co-owner. The tours include six to eight passengers packed in the back of a pickup who take a two-hour ride to the island's north end.
That ride has been the subject of recent court action. Two years after Wilderness Watch sued the National Park Service, a judge ordered the park to end tours and issue a special one-year permit to the inn to continue its tours. Park superintendent Jerre Brumbelow said the inn has yet to sign the permit.
"Things were good enough left alone," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. "There are some powerful, moneyed interests on the island that are pushing this, and they have the ear of their congressman."
As the park's top official, Brumbelow sometimes feels more like an attorney. "I spend 40 percent of my time worrying about the lawsuit instead of time spent running the park," he said.
Although the island's residents are free to drive as they wish, it can take park employees two to three days to push through the red tape to legally use the roads.
"You can't afford to send a guy to hike for three days to cut a tree down," Brumbelow said. "While you're hiking there with a saw, you have 10 drivers pass you on the road. It's not real pragmatic."
Critics, though, said visitors should see the park only on foot, even if it requires a good day's hike to reach some of the island's attractions.
The legal trappings that go along with the wilderness designation are frustrating to park officials. A nonprofit group that offered to manage the Plum Orchard mansion recently pulled out of the deal for fear it could not get supplies to the estate because of the road restrictions.
"There's been a number of times since 1982 when the Park Service has said, 'Whoops, the wilderness designation was a mistake,' " Brumbelow said. "Time and again, it's like running into a brick wall."
That is what infuriates supporters of more road access. They say free-standing chimneys dating back to the age of slavery are falling apart for lack of maintenance. The dense growth of pine needles, packed four to five feet deep on the island's north end, is an increasing fire hazard.
After all, they say, Cumberland Island with its houses, roads and power lines is no pristine forest land.
"We're going to create a delusion of wilderness that doesn't exist," Ferguson said. "What it is is a perfect example of how land can be managed."