The island wilderness myth

By Philip Conkling | Feb 02, 2012

The first Maine island I ever visited was a dream come true. A lobsterman dropped me on a beautiful rugged island off the Washington County coastline midway between the treacherous waters of Petit Manan Point and the sheltering harbor of Cape Split to collect ecological data for the Nature Conservancy. Flint Island had everything an eager young naturalist could hope for: A pair of mated eagles patrolling its shore, a large seal haul-out site on an adjoining ledge and a host of rare Arctic wildflowers. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

But then something odd happened that changed the course of my life. In the dense interior of this incredibly wild island I stumbled upon a cellar hole. I suddenly realized that someone had once lived here, remote and en-isled. Who were they? How had they lived there? What became of them? These questions haunted me for years after, especially after I had come ashore and began asking people around town and discovered that no one knew. Whoever they were, their history had been lost.

The more I learned about Maine’s islands, the more stories of island families I came across. I discovered there had once been 300 year-round island communities — some just extended family islands, and others whole towns with stores, schools and boatyards that had simply disappeared. Ultimately I realized that virtually every island bigger than an acre had been altered by the hands of man (and women) for some purpose that was etched into the island’s landscape.

And, of course, before European settlers first sought shelter on the islands, there had been countless aboriginal Indian communities on the islands as well, stretching back at least 5,000 years that can be documented. In fact you could say, without exaggeration, that humans have been altering Maine’s island habitats since the rising seas created these landscapes some 10,000 years ago. So what is “wilderness” really supposed to mean?

I was reminded of this important question a few weeks ago on a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands. Much of the acreage on this long and sinuous series of barrier islands has been incorporated into the National Park System. This is a great accomplishment of which many people, both from the area and from Washington’s power elite, are justifiably proud. But there is something that still bothers me about our visit.

At the tip of Harkers Island is the headquarters of Cape Lookout National Seashore. The superintendent there graciously invited us to cross Core Sound with him to climb the 175-foot-tall, iconic black-and-white, diamond-patterned lighthouse to survey his domain. When we got to the top of the lighthouse, and took in the twisting sand beaches stretching toward the horizon to both north and south, the superintendent noticed my Fox Island Wind cap with their insignia of three turbines on the front.

He said, “The Park Service has problems with the prospect of wind turbines offshore here that could mar this spectacular view.” I agreed that the view was spectacular, but then noted to the southwest, a series of high-rise condominiums that had sprouted up on Emerald Isle and a cargo ship steaming into the busy seaport of Beaufort.

Turning around at the top of the lighthouse, the superintendent pointed across the narrow channel to Shackleford Banks. Shackleford had once been connected to Cape Lookout, but the 1935 hurricane cut an outlet between Cape Lookout and Shackleford, dividing the beach at its elbow into two islands. When the islands were breached, “the waters rushed out and the 20th Century rushed in,” in the words of one local fisherman. With the new channel, Harkers Island fishermen no longer had to go around Shackleford Banks, but had a handy outlet to their fishing grounds; but the developers also appreciated the opportunity to market shorefront property with direct access to the ocean.

When Cape Lookout National Seashore was created by an act Congress in 1966, Shackleford Banks was included and eventually designated as “wilderness” 20 years later. The only problem was that Shackleford had a long history of human occupation stretching back to the 18th century. Even though the island had been abandoned after a late 19th century hurricane contaminated all the wells on the islands with salt water, the survivors and their descendants continued to maintain the houses that had not been destroyed. After a long and costly wave of litigation, the National Park Service dismantled the remaining houses on Shackleford in 1985 to create the “wilderness.”

In the ensuing bitterness, the first headquarters of the National Park Service on Harkers Island was burned to the ground. No one was ever prosecuted, although undoubtedly every islander knew the real story.

Violence is always terribly dispiriting and inexcusable, but the violent local reaction to the Park Service’s tactics mirrored the violence done in an otherwise noble effort to protect barrier islands from private development so all Americans could enjoy their beauty. However, erasing the proud and independent history of many island families in the name of an abstract concept like “wilderness” was not the only or best solution either.

As we learned here long ago, islands can be wild without having to be “wilderness.”

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