Final Draft of the Jekyll Island State Park Conservation Plan

(Presented to the Jekyll Island Authority’s
Board of Directors on July 18, 2011)

The Jekyll Island State Park Conservation Plan (CP) has come a long way since its first draft, which was introduced to the public on December 1, 2010. Initially, the CP suffered from a number of omissions and lack of depth. Complicating these problems was the disjointed public review process which discouraged some people from making constructive comments and alienated others.  Eventually, though, the public had its say and made significant contributions to the final draft. As stated in the CP’s Executive Summary, “Hundreds of individuals commented on the initial drafts, and this input led to substantial changes in the Plan. During three public meetings, hundreds of residents and Jekyll Island supporters listened to updates on the status of the Plan, engaged in lively discussions that led to substantive changes in the approach, and provided extensive commentary that were considered by the Conservation Planning Committee.”
The CP in its final form provides a framework – not a detailed plan – for protecting and managing the natural resources of Jekyll Island State Park.  It will be up to the Jekyll Island Authority, its board of directors, and the yet to be hired Director of Conservation to take the steps necessary to realize the ambitious objectives, goals and strategies that comprise the CP framework created by the Conservation Planning Committee. The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island intends to do all it can to support those who are in charge of implementing the CP so as to help ensure that the Plan reaches its full potential.
Our thanks go out to the CP Committee for its hard work, to the various conservation organizations (Center for a Sustainable Coast, Glynn Environmental Coalition, Georgia Sierra Club, Environment Georgia, Altamaha Riverkeeper, and Georgia Ornithological Society) that submitted recommendations for CP improvements, and to the hundreds of members of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island who either sent comments to the CP Committee or endorsed the recommendations submitted by IPJI. Well done, everyone!

What’s New in the Final Draft of the
Jekyll Island State Park Conservation Plan?

Executive Summary (pp. 4-5):
As its title indicates, this section summarizes the objectives and key points of the Conservation Plan (CP). As such, it provides a useful overview of the CP. It also makes clear the CP committee’s intention to steer cear of the question of delineating the 65% of Jekyll Island that is required by law to remain in its natural condition:“Consistent with the enabling legislation associated with the acquisition of the island by the state, this Plan does not attempt to modify or change the boundaries depicting the 35%-65% separating development and conservation. These boundaries will be reviewed as part of the upcoming Jekyll Island master Plan update.”

While it is true that the Master Plan has the final say on matters relating to the 65-35 issue, the CP should at least offer some recommendations to the Master Plan review team regarding how to go about identifying/defining the natural land that is supposed to be protected.

Introduction (p. 8):
The introduction now states that, “The scope of this Plan did not include a specific assessment of existing facilities, user perspectives or recreation needs.”   The CP should strongly recommend that this kind of assessment be done in the very near future. Instead the CP says, “This type of study could be conducted to supplement existing information on resource-based recreation and to set more detailed objectives for the future at the discretion of the JIA board.”

A welcome addition to the CP is the mention of a visitor/carrying capacity study: “It is anticipated that a visitor capacity study and a carrying capacity study…will be conducted as part of the Master Plan update process….” The CP should, however, emphasize why such a study should be conducted as part of planning for Jekyll Island State Park’s future and strongly recommend that one be done.

Section 2.3 - Data Compilation and Components of the Plan (p. 10):
“For future updates, the CP Committee will be comprised of individuals with expertise in ecology, conservation biology, barrier island ecosystems, environmental education, and environmental law along with key JIA staff. Updates to the CP will involve citizen involvement through a review process.”   This addition to the CP certainly sounds good, but, for the sake of objectivity, the specialists who sit on the CP update committee should not be dependent on the state for their jobs, with the exception of one or two JIA staff members. In addition, citizen involvement should not be limited to review of the revised CP. There should be public involvement/participation in the update process from A to Z.

Section 3.2 – Hydrology (p. 14):
This section now includes a statement on the need for water saving conservation measures, and says, “Further evaluations of the amounts of water use needed for human consumption will be conducted after a carrying capacity study is completed in association with the MP update.”   Previously, a carrying capacity study was referred to as a possibility; here it sounds like one will be done.

Section 3.7 - Ecological Threats and Stresses (p. 17):
Per IPJI’s recommendation, development and redevelopment activities have been added to the list of ecological threats and stresses facing Jekyll Island. The language in the paragraph is quite strong, especially the last sentence: “Development and redevelopment activities pose one of the more significant stresses and threats to natural habitats on the island.” While this statement notes the obvious, it’s nonetheless nice to see it in the CP.

Section – Urban/Developed, Includes Developed, Golf Course, Parks and Recreation, Quarry/Stripmine, Transportation, and Open Field Designations (p. 32):
Per IPJI’s recommendation, section (p. 32) now includes a list identifying the threats and stresses for urban/developed lands, including habitat fragmentation, chemical pollution, beach armoring, light and noise pollution, and development/redevelopment activities. Wetlands alteration through vegetation removal, drainage alterations, and fill/dredge activities are also now listed among the stresses and threats cited in this section.

Section 5.1 - Management, Figure 5, Management Units (p. 41):
The “Roads” management unit that was in the previous draft has been deleted. The 215.8 acres of roads previously listed have been added to the acreage of four other management units: coastal marsh, upland forest, golf course, and urban/park. No explanation is given for this change.

Section 5.2 - Island-Wide Management (p. 42):
Per IPJI’s recommendation, details are now provided on the conservation easement proposal made in the previous CP draft. Three options are listed for permanently protecting Jekyll Island’s 65% natural area along with a statement that each of these options will be evaluated during the Master Plan review process. The CP states that, “ultimately, the JIA will develop legal instruments and/or organizations to permanently protect the 65% non-developed portion of the island.”

Section 5.2 - Island-Wide Management – Hydrological Alterations (p. 44):
This section includes two new points on water conservation, one encouraging the planting of low water use plants within landscapes for existing developed sites and for new parcels, and the other calling for the implementation of water conservation measures for outdoor water use. Also new to this section is the statement, “Studies on carrying capacity of the island relative to water supply and effluent disposal will be addressed in the Master Plan.” It is encouraging to see the CP acknowledge the need for a carrying capacity study and to state that such a study will be part of the Master Plan update.

Section 5.2 - Island-Wide Management – Management Implications from
Recreation Trails (p. 45):
The five strategies cited in the previous draft of the CP for expanding/improving trails have been deleted and replaced by a statement saying that, “New trails will be limited in extent and many only be added as needed for management, educational or recreational purposes. Access to some trails may be permanently or temporarily restricted for management (e.g. fire breaks) or education (e.g. field programs) activities. The appropriateness of any proposed new trails will be evaluated using the Environmental Assessment Procedure (EAP) defined in Section 7 of this Plan.”  While an expanded trail system would be good for recreational and nature-based educational purposes, it makes sense for the CP to require proposals for trail enhancement to be reviewed by the EAP team.

Section 5.3 – Causeway Management (p. 46):
New here is a statement calling for the development of “road mortality and fragmentation mitigation strategies (design and engineering) to reduce effects of the causeway on adjacent natural communities.”  Given the likelihood that causeway traffic will increase significantly once the Jekyll town center is completed and the three beachfront hotels that are supposed to be replaced are built, strategies of the type hinted at above will be needed. The CP should, however, offer specific strategies here instead of just mentioning the need for them. 

Section 5.4 - Specific Area Management (pp. 49-51):
These pages include a number of new points dealing with the protection of  plant priority species, including the creation of an educational program to further public awareness and reduce effects of human activities on the priority species, and the management of  trail access and roadway improvements around wetlands to limit alterations to the rare plant communities.

Section 5.5 – Monitoring (pp. 61-62):
Per IPJI’s recommendation, this section expands the list of monitoring activities, including statements calling for the monitoring of exotic invasive species and their extent; wildlife use and wildlife nuisance reports within the golf courses; natural resources addressed in Audubon international certifications for the golf courses; and wildlife use and compatibility issues within developed lands.  This last point, along with some of the other new development-related statements cited above, make the final draft of the CP more responsive to the potential conservation impact of development and redevelopment projects than were previous drafts of the CP.

Section 6.2 – Environmental Education:
The CP recognizes the need for coordination of environmental education programs on the island but fails to respond to recommendations made that the Plan provide for, or at least suggest, the hiring of a staff dedicated solely to enhancing, coordinating and integrating nature-based interpretive experiences and environmental education. The wealth of opportunities for environmental interpretation/environmental education on Jekyll Island, the amount of work/time required to fully capitalize on these opportunities, and the revenue-generating potential of nature-based tourism all argue for the need for a staff dedicated solely to promoting the CP’s environmental education mission.

Section 7 – Environmental Assessment Procedure (EAP):
This section is essentially the same as the one in the March 7, 2011 draft. IPJI’s recommendation made then was that the majority of the members of the environmental assessment review team should be independent of the JIA and other state agencies.  An environmental impacts review conducted by people dependent on the JIA or the state of Georgia for their livelihood poses the clear risk of JIA development priorities taking precedence over ecological, wildlife, natural scenery, and threatened species concerns, as was the case with the ill-fated Linger Longer town center project. Furthermore, if the EAP review is to have teeth, it should be conducted by neutral parties who have the expertise and the authority to revise projects that are deemed to be fundamentally at odds with conservation priorities. 

Even if a proposed development project is found to be at odds with conservation objectives, the CP (p. 70) still allows it to proceed: “The EAP review will likely (not will) result in specific design recommendations that would be required for project approval.”

The CP still does not include a provision for public and peer expert review of EAP Team and JIA decisions. In the absence of such a provision, development interests may be allowed to take precedence over conservation concerns and objectives.

The CP still does not require new development and redevelopment projects to be sanctioned by one or another of the national environmental certification programs, such as Green Globe or LEED.

On the plus side, Section 7 now includes a statement saying, “All current and new projects will meet the sea turtle safe lighting and other regulating ordinance requirements.”

Section 8 – Staffing, Partnerships and Funding
This section points out the need for additional staff to meet the objectives of the CP and, per IPJI’s recommendation, includes a detailed job description and qualifications for the Director of Conservation, who will be charged with overall implementation of the CP. Ideally, the CP should have recommended the hiring of other key conservation staff members, including an environmental education coordinator, a wildlife biologist, and a volunteer coordinator.

Two Additional Comments

As stated in the Executive Summary, the CP “creates a framework for protecting and managing the natural resources of Jekyll Island….  The Plan is expected to be clarified, refined and adapted based on further research, improved techniques, and a changing environment.”  The framework referred to in the Executive Summary includes 49 management priorities, 108 strategies, and 27 monitoring activities, which are left to the Director of Conservation to prioritize, adapt, refine, apply and evaluate for effectiveness. Existing JIA staff, volunteers and interns may help the Director of Conservation meet some of the objectives of the CP, but in order to handle effectively a work load of this size, the Director of Conservation will need a permanent, dedicated support staff of some size. Hopefully, adequate funds will be set aside for the hiring of such a staff once the Director of Conservation is on board and has submitted his/her budget and staff plan for the implementation of the CP.

The CP recognizes that some areas of Jekyll Island are far more environmentally sensitive than others but, as pointed out above, fails to offer anything to help clarify the boundaries of the 65% of Jekyll’s land area that is required by law to remain in its natural condition, stating instead that it is up to the Jekyll Island Master Plan “to delineate and identify the parcels most appropriate for development or redevelopment.” It seems clear, however, that the delineation of natural areas in need of protection—whether from natural or man-made threats and stresses—is fundamentally a conservation objective, a point evidenced by the fact that the highly regarded definition of conservation planning developed by the Conservation Planning Institute has at its core the delineation of natural areas that must be protected.  At the very least, the CP should recommend that the Master Plan adopt national/professionally established definitions for developed and undeveloped land and that the entire island be classified hierarchically based upon environmental sensitivity, with the 65% of the island that is required to remain in its natural condition comprising Jekyll’s most environmentally sensitive areas.