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Hearings to cover island tour plans
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    ST. MARYS, Ga.  — Nearly 45,000 people visit Cumberland Island National Seashore annually, but few get a chance to see much of the 17-mile-long barrier island.
    That’s because walking is the only way to get anywhere on the island after a ferry drops off visitors at a dock near the south end of the island.
    Most don’t have the time or stamina to hike to some of the well-known historic areas such as Plum Orchard mansion, High Point Half-Moon historic district or the First African Baptist Church, where John Kennedy Jr. was married in 1996.
    But with the passage of the Cumberland Island Wilderness Boundary Act in December 2004, Congress created a way to give visitors more access to the island without walking as far as 30 miles roundtrip.
    The legislation removed three roads and the High Point Half-Moon historic district from wilderness or potential wilderness protection. The legislation also requires the National Park Service to offer no fewer than five and no more than eight vehicle tours to the north end of the island each day.
    The challenge now is to determine the best way to shuttle visitors to the north end of the island, who will offer the tours, how much it will cost and where to take visitors.
    Those issues will be discussed this month in St. Marys and Atlanta in a series of public hearings scheduled on implementing the plan. The dates of the hearings are expected to be announced this week when a draft of the proposed plan is released, Park Service officials said.
    No funding for the vehicle tours was addressed in the legislation mandating the tours.
    Regardless of any changes after the hearings, Park Service officials said the plan will have a major impact on the national seashore.
    ‘‘It will take a considerable amount of work,’’ said John Fry, chief ranger at Cumberland Island. ‘‘We’re going to have to be flexible enough to modify the plan. There will be considerable public comment on this.’’
    A draft of the proposed plan with different options and recommendations will be released Tuesday.
    People will have a say in which historic and natural resources will be on the tour and whether they will be offered by Park Service personnel or a private vendor.
    Among issues the plan will likely spawn are whether to build restrooms or a visitor center at the north end of the island and how to maintain the dirt road that will be used for the tours.
    The plan isn’t without critics. Environmental groups such as Georgia Conservancy, Georgia Sierra Club and Wilderness Watch have all voiced opposition to the legislation and any plans to transport people to the north end of the island.
    But they also have conceded there is nothing they can do to stop the tours because of the mandate by Congress.
    Opponents are concerned about how the vehicle tours will impact island campers and hikers and if the tours will lead to a demand to increase the number of daily visitors to the island from its current limit of 300 people a day.
    Will Berson, senior policy analyst for Georgia Conservancy, said the Park Service should offer the tours instead of awarding a contract to a commercial vendor because visitation can be so unpredictable, depending on the time of year and weather conditions.
    ‘‘It’s certainly something we intend to review carefully,’’ he said. ‘‘Is it reasonable that the number of tours fits in with the limit of 300 people a day on Cumberland Island? We are concerned the numbers (of daily visitors) are not there for the number of tours required (by Congress).’’
    They also want to restrict tours so visitors aren’t taken to the beach or across the dune system.
    And they are opposed to taking overnight campers to the north end of the island.
    ‘‘The cumulative impacts could be contrary to the vision of the park,’’ said Hal Wright, an environmental attorney in Atlanta.
    While handicap access to the island will be addressed in the plan, it may not be as comprehensive as some would like it to be.
    Woody Woodside, president of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the Park Service improves handicap access to the ferry that shuttles people to Cumberland.
    Depending on the tide, it can be challenging for someone in a wheelchair to board or disembark from the ferry.
    Once they are on the island, it’s difficult for people in wheelchairs to get to some of the more popular destinations such as the beach, he said.
    ‘‘I hope they give consideration to wheelchairs,’’ Woodside said. ‘‘I think it would be a shame if they didn’t.’’