Preservationists warn new Cumberland Island visitation plan would ruin pristine seashore

Cumberland Island

ATLANTA – Fifty years after the Cumberland Island National Seashore was established, the National Park Service (NPS) is pushing a plan that essentially would double daily visitation to the remote barrier island.

While the NPS is selling its Visitor Use Management Plan (VUMP) as a way to provide access to the island’s unique natural beauty to a wider range of visitors, preservationists say the plan would ruin what makes Cumberland special.

“The VUMP Plan is a disaster for the island,” Carol Ruckdeschel, a biologist and environmental activist who has lived on Cumberland Island for decades, wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.

“The NPS must be required to do a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and not be allowed to sneak by with only an assessment. Much of the plan seems to follow no rules or guidelines. It is outrageous.”

Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, stretches for nearly 18 miles of pristine beaches and wilderness.

At its southern end are the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion built by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas in the 1880s.

Toward the northern end is the First African Baptist Church, built by former slaves in the 1890s and rebuilt in the 1930s. The church was the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996.

The island is reachable only by private boat and ferry service that operates twice daily from downtown St. Marys, with a return trip three times a day.

Under the current visitation plan, which dates back to 1984, the ferries limit access to 300 visitors a day. The new plan calls for delivering up to 600 visitors each day to two docks on the western shore near the southern end of the island and potentially another 100 at a dock at Plum Orchard, an estate in the middle of Cumberland’s western shore.

Gary Ingram, the national seashore’s superintendent, said the genesis of the idea for increasing the number of visitors allowed on Cumberland came from Camden County residents who complained to him that the ferry trip is too expensive.

“Many born and raised in our local area have never been to Cumberland Island,” Ingram said last month during a public meeting on the new plan. “This group is far more diverse than the majority of people who visit the park. … We are hopeful this small increase in visitation will lower the price of the ferry.”

Andrew White, a visitor use management specialist with the NPS Planning Division, said the island already has proven capable of sustaining more than 300 daily visitors without adverse impact because of the number of additional visitors who travel to the island by boat each day or camp overnight.

“We know our current management is for more than 300 people on the island on a busy day,” he said.

Ingram said the new plan would give visitors who now stick mainly to the southern end of Cumberland greater access to more of the island, particularly if the NPS opens ferry service to Plum Orchard. He said limiting the ferries to the two docks at the southern end of Cumberland causes congestion at times.

To better disperse visitors, the NPS plan calls for adding two new campsites on the northern end of Cumberland and opening Hunt Camp near Plum Orchard to the public.

The plan also would add pavilions with open sides at two beaches, a bathhouse at Nightingale Beach, kayak and canoe rentals and retail sale of “health and safety” items including sunscreen and bug spray.

A beach access area with a boat landing would be added at the southern end of the island near a shorebird protection area that would be off limits to the public. Bicycle use would be expanded further north.

“It is our hope that this plan not only enhances the visitor experience but also protects the valuable one-of-a-kind resources on Cumberland,” Ingram said.

But preservationists say such amenities would violate the purpose of Cumberland Island National Seashore envisioned when it was established in 1972.

“The seashore, as reflected in its originating legislation, is intended to be a primitive experience for ALL visitors – not only those who seek a wilderness experience,” the nonprofit group Wild Cumberland wrote in a statement.

“If we don’t exhibit the restraint necessary to ensure that places like Cumberland Island remain undeveloped now – none will remain in the future.”

While a public comment period on the new visitation plan ends on Friday, Dec. 30, the NPS isn’t expected to issue a final decision until this summer.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Audit finds Georgia R&D tax credit a poor return on investment

ATLANTA – Georgia’s Research & Development Tax Credit has not been a good investment when it comes to quantifiable dollars and cents, according to a new audit.

But the program is paying off in intangible ways, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia concluded in a report commissioned by the state Department of Audits and Accounts.

Businesses can receive a state R&D tax credit worth 10% of the company’s year-over-year increase in qualified research expenses. Between 2015 and 2020, the program cost the state from $190.5 million to $302.5 million in annual lost tax revenue, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue.

The incentive the tax credit provides resulted in only minimal additional spending on research and development. Since the credit increased R&D spending by only 5%, the audit concluded that 95% of what businesses are spending on research and development would have been spent even if the credit didn’t exist.

As a result, each $1 the state loses in tax revenue to the credit generates only 56 cents in economic impact, the audit found.

“Even after extrapolating indirect and induced economic impacts, the value proposition of Georgia’s R&D tax credit is low,” the audit concluded.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The audit asserted that some benefits of a research and development tax credit are intangible and can’t be tied to a single recipient of a credit.

“Research and development may elevate the profile of the state and local business environment,” the report stated. “While traditional economic impact modeling is designed to capture the effect of increased employment, spending, and taxation within a region, it may fail to fully account for the clustering effect of businesses, suppliers, and customers.”

The audit cited as an example two companies that relocated to Georgia so they can more easily collaborate on research and development.

“These relocations may also add to the state’s reputation as a good place to conduct business, another intangible that cannot be captured by a traditional quantitative impact,” the audit found.

The report also concluded that money companies invest in educational systems to help grow a pipeline of employees is another benefit that can’t be quantified.

The audit was the result of legislation the General Assembly passed in 2021 requiring periodic evaluation of Georgia tax credits and exemptions on a rolling five-year basis.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Handful of new laws to take effect in Georgia this weekend

A new Georgia law will make it easier on the state’s growing food truck industry.

ATLANTA – Most bills the General Assembly passes each year take effect on July 1.

But a smattering of new laws enacted during the 2022 legislative session will kick in this Sunday, Jan. 1, including a bill making it easier for food trucks to do business and several new or expanded tax credits.

The food truck legislation does away with a current requirement in Georgia law that food truck operators obtain a permit and inspection in every county where they do business.

“Almost all food trucks operate in multiple counties,” said Tony Harrison, board president of the Food Truck Association of Georgia. “That means multiple permits and fees. It’s just insane.”

Under House Bill 1443, which members of the General Assembly passed unanimously last March, food truck operators need only notify county health departments when they open for business in their communities.

“We do not have to go through all the paperwork and fees,” Harrison said. “We’ve already seen an increase in food trucks popping up before the law has even taken effect.”

While the tax credit bills technically became effective last summer, they don’t really become reality until New Year’s Day, the beginning of the tax year.

Three of the measures create new income tax credits.

House Bill 424 will provide a tax credit to Georgia taxpayers who contribute to nonprofit organizations that help foster children about to age out of the foster care system. More than 700 young men and women age out of the system each year.

Senate Bill 361, which was championed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, will provide a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit on contributions to public safety initiatives in the taxpayer’s community. Law enforcement agencies will be able to use the money for police officer salary supplements, to purchase or maintain department equipment and/or to establish or maintain a co-responder program.

Senate Bill 87, the Jack Hill Veterans’ Act, honors the late state Sen. Jack Hill of Reidsville, who died in 2020. It provides income tax credits in exchange for contributions to scholarships for service-disabled veterans through the Technical College System of Georgia Foundation.

The General Assembly also expanded Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit through House Bill 1041, which increases the annual statewide cap on the credit from $60 million to $75 million. Rural hospital administrators and the program’s legislative supporters originally sought to raise the cap to $100 million but were forced to settle for the lower figure.

Fiscal conservatives in the General Assembly have launched efforts in recent years to bring closer scrutiny to Georgia’s tax credits to ensure they’re worth the hit to state tax revenues.

But tax credits that incentivize taxpayers to contribute toward popular causes that need financial help have tended to survive unscathed, said Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

“There don’t seem to be a whole lot of problems with them,” Wingfield said.

Another bill that will take effect on Sunday, Senate Bill 332, also known as the Inform Consumers Act, is aimed at preventing criminals from selling goods stolen from retail stores on any online marketing platform. It establishes financial and contact information requirements for high-volume sellers to online marketplaces and requires such platforms to establish an option for consumers to report suspicious activity.

“Here in Georgia, we will do everything possible to curb crime and make life difficult for those who break the law,” Gov. Brian Kemp said last May as he signed the bill. “We’re dealing another blow to the organized gangs that steal from Georgia shops and stores by making it much harder for them to profit from their heists.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia establishes its own health-insurance portal, Georgia Access 

The homepage for the new Georgia Access website set up by the state government this fall.

ATLANTA – After failing to win federal approval to exit the federal insurance marketplace earlier this year, Georgia has established its own health-insurance portal directing people to private insurers and brokers to buy health insurance. 

The new website, called Georgia Access, includes links to 10 health-insurance companies – including big players such as United, Kaiser Permanente, and Aetna – as well as seven online brokers, organizations that help people shop for and enroll in health insurance.  

The dueling state and federal websites each offer a different route to the same destination: signing up for health insurance.  

Georgians can use the links on to explore the insurance companies’ and brokers’ offerings, which include but are not limited to the same marketplace plans offered on the federal website.  

The new Georgia Access site also includes links to companies and brokers that offer dental and vision plans, basic information about Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids, and links to state health-care agencies that assist with mental health.  

But notably absent from the state’s new portal is a link to the federal, a one-stop shop for buying health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. The website provides comparisons of the different companies’ health plans.

The state decided to set up the portal with the resources it had initially devoted to its plan to exit the federal marketplace, said Gregg Conley, executive counsel for the Georgia Department of Insurance.  

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp first sought permission to exit the federal health insurance marketplace back in 2020. But the Biden administration rejected the Georgia plan earlier this year after analyses showed it would cover fewer, not more, Georgians than the federal marketplace.  

According to Georgia Access, 1.3 million Georgians lack health insurance.

“I would encourage people to sign up for health [insurance],” Conley said. “What we don’t want is people not to have health care.”

But many advocates argue that online brokers and private insurers are not the best custodians of consumers’ interests.  

Insurance companies and brokers, most of which are for-profit entities, may push people to enroll in “substandard” plans that don’t cover all services, Joan Alker, a research professor at Georgetown University, wrote earlier this year.  

Brokers may fail to help people enroll in Medicaid or other state health-insurance plans for people with low incomes and they may not adequately cater to the needs of racial and ethnic minorities and people who are not proficient in English, Alker wrote.

In Georgia, legislative Democrats have called for expanding Medicaid to address the state’s large population of uninsured people.  

“Georgia should expand Medicaid,” House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, said Wednesday. “I am calling on the governor and the Georgia legislature to make it priority #1 to ensure every Georgian has access to quality health-care benefits.”

Open enrollment for marketplace plans ends on Jan. 15, 2023. That gives Georgians just two more weeks to select their plans for next year, whether through the links provided on or the federal 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Chattahoochee River Act signed into law

Chattahoochee River (photo: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden has signed legislation aimed at protecting the Chattahoochee River.

The first-of-its-kind measure authorizes $90 million in federal funds for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work with local partners on water projects throughout the Chattahoochee River system.

Biden signed the bill last week as part of congressional reauthorization of the Water Resources and Development Act.

“This exciting new program will improve water quality, protect essential public works, and restore ecosystems along the river, which supplies much of our state’s drinking water,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who introduced the bill into the Senate along with Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

“Clean water is essential for healthy and thriving communities,” Warnock added. “While the Chattahoochee River’s water quality has improved in recent years, hundreds of miles of Chattahoochee watershed waterways still do not meet water-quality standards.

“I’m proud to have worked with Senator Ossoff to ensure this provision that will invest in improving, protecting, and preserving the Chattahoochee River gets signed into law.”

According to the Georgia River Network, the Chattahoochee supplies 70% of metro Atlanta’s drinking water. The river is also a key source of water for farmers and an important source of power generation through hydroelectric dams.

However, more than 1,000 miles of waterway within the Chattahoochee watershed do not meet water quality standards, creating potential health risks to humans and wildlife.

In 2019, the National Park Service reported visitors to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area added more than $200 million to the metro region’s economy, supporting more than 2,000 local jobs.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.