Monday, August 23, 2010

Whit Gibbons: Book Recounts Efforts to Protect Jekyll

Author Babs McDonald
Any book that begins with the words "I love public land" and is dedicated to "the thousands of citizens who have consistently and persistently opposed... commercial, timeshare, and condominium development" on a coastal island should appeal to many people. The dedication goes on to acknowledge those "who work for the establishment, protection, and preservation of public lands everywhere." Although this book is about the commercial and political forces that threaten Jekyll Island State Park, Ga., the principles should resonate anywhere powerful individuals and corporations decide that personal profits should outweigh the preferences of the general public.

"Remember Jekyll Island" (2010, Langdon Street Press, Minneapolis, $14.95) by Babs McDonald gives an inside view of the history of what she refers to as "inappropriate planning" by the Jekyll Island Authority. The authority was created to oversee conservation, development, and management of the island. Yet some citizens became actively involved in thwarting development of the island as proposed by the authority because they thought the plan would reduce public access to the magnificent coastal habitats. A primary threat was an increase in private development and restricted-access housing areas. Jekyll Island State Park is currently open to the public and belongs to all the people; the idea of private development was viewed by some as unacceptable.

I feel certain that a book written by the Jekyll Island Authority about their process of decision making, planning, and management would offer explanations for the authority's actions. And such a book might be appropriate, because in McDonald's opinion the members of the authority have "got some 'splainin' to do." For example, she states that the way the authority appears "to discount public opinion, deflect public scrutiny, and act with impunity may be related to its accountability to Georgia's governor."

One helpful feature of the book is the chapter titled "What You Can Do." If you don't like the way a publically owned area such as a national or state park is being treated, you can take action. Some of the suggestions are geared to Jekyll Island but they have generic applicability and would work in many different situations. For example, set up a website and let people join your effort. Give away free bumper stickers ("Save ..."). One suggestion that I am always in favor of is to contact your local newspaper or any others whose readers are interested in the ecological issue.

South Beach, Jekyll Island
And let us not forget elected officials, who often have great influence. They seem to be more attuned to the public interest when they realize that their actions are under scrutiny.

"Remember Jekyll Island" details efforts to protect a specific place. But it has general applicability to any place where public habitats and natural environments are vulnerable to political maneuvering and self-serving justification by people with an eye on personal profit.

The writings of Gifford Pinchot in 1910 express the environmental spirit that many people, probably a majority, would like to achieve. Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, is quoted in McDonald's book: "I stand for the [Teddy] Roosevelt policies because they set the common good of all of us above the private gain of some of us." In other words, a state park that thousands of people a year can enjoy is of greater value to the nation than a developed enclave accessible by only a privileged few.

Who's right and who's wrong in contests to decide how land is used sometimes depends on whom you talk to and how articulate they are in making a case for their side. At this juncture in the development prospects for Jekyll Island, it would appear that a few developers and possibly some politicians could get rich by limiting access to a state park that is currently open to the public.

Perhaps the black-hat players described in the book could justify their actions if they told their side of the story. Or perhaps Dr. McDonald's assessment is right on target and no justification is possible.

Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com. Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. 
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