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Cumberland Island will be open to autos

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Until recently, the north end of Georgia's Cumberland Island was one of the more remote places in the Southeast. Most people could reach it only by foot, and it took a 15-mile hike to get there.

Now, however, automobiles will be widely allowed on previously protected parts of the island, due to the work of U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia. Kingston tacked legislation opening the island's roads onto the nation's $388 billion spending bill. That bill passed last week, allowing up to eight busloads of tourists to visit the island's north end every day.

One of the biggest winners in the bill's passage is the Ferguson family, whose members are direct descendants of the Carnegies. The Carnegie family once owned the entire 18-mile-long island. The Fergusons now own and operate the Greyfield Inn, the island's only hotel. The cheapest room at the Greyfield Inn -- a double with shared bath -- costs $395 a night.

For years, Greyfield Inn guests were offered Jeep tours to the north end of the island. But conservation group Wilderness Watch sued the inn and the U.S. National Park Service in an attempt to stop the tours, which crossed into protected areas.

The courts ruled in Wilderness Watch's favor in May 2003. Two months later, Kingston -- who had received in February 2003 a $1,000 campaign contribution from the inn's co-owner, Gogo Ferguson -- introduced legislation to strip areas of the island of its protected status and allow automobiles to drive through.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, upheld Wilderness Watch's victory in June. Within five months, however, Kingston's legislation passed out of the U.S. House's Natural Resources Committee and was tacked onto the omnibus spending bill.

"What this legislation does is let Greyfield Inn do these tours free and clear without any opposition," says Georgia Conservancy attorney Julie Mayfield.

Kingston did not return phone calls before CL went to press.

Greyfield Inn manager Mary Ferguson says, "It seemed after many years of working on different options, [the legislation] seemed like a really good solution. It's going to allow those who have rights to use the road to just continue and do what we've been doing. It just simplifies things."

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