Ossabaw Island Heritage Preserve Milestone: June 15th Marks 40 Years of Protection for this Georgia Barrier Island
Thursday, June 14th, 2018
Friday, June 15 is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Ossabaw Island Heritage Preserve. On June 15, 1978, Georgia governor George Busbee signed an Executive Order designating the 26,000 acre barrier island in Chatham County as a Heritage Preserve, as outlined in the State of Georgia’s Heritage Trust Act of 1975.
“So many Georgians in the 1970s had the wisdom to see our coast as a treasure worth preserving, and to see Ossabaw Island as a unique jewel among many coastal jewels,” said Elizabeth DuBose, Executive Director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. “Forty years later, thanks to the Heritage Preserve protections, Ossabaw is not only a critical element of the coastal ecosystem, but also allows scientists and historians to share important information about our nation’s past. On Ossabaw, new information is revealed every year through archaeology, ecological study, and related historical research on the mainland.”
In the Executive Order, Governor Busbee noted “an urgent public need to preserve important and endangered natural areas in Georgia for the benefit of present and future generations.” He cited Ossabaw’s unique condition as one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands on the Atlantic coast as justification that “the fragile ecosystems of the island should be preserved to insure that there will always be natural areas along the coast to provide protection for the estuaries, wildlife, marshes and coastal shorelines;”. Further, Busbee noted Ossabaw’s need to remain undeveloped in order to provide protection for the mainland from Atlantic storms, and to provide clean air and water “essential to human habitation of the Georgia mainland….”
In May, 1978, the State of Georgia purchased Ossabaw Island from the Torrey-West family, who had owned Ossabaw since 1924. The $8 million sale of the island came after nearly a decade of pressure on the family brought on by increased property taxes and pursuit by private developers. Led by family matriarch Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, the Torrey-West family negotiated with the state of Georgia for the island’s purchase and protections. Appraised at $16 million, the family agreed to the $8 million sale price if protections were put in place. Atlanta philanthropist Robert Woodruff contributed $4 million of the purchase monies, with the remaining $4 million from the State of Georgia. As part of the sale, Mrs. West received a life estate deed of ownership to 23 acres of the island previously willed to her by her mother, Nell Torrey. Mrs. West lived on Ossabaw until 2016, when she moved to Savannah; her life estate ownership remains in place.
The Heritage Preserve designation signed by Governor Busbee sets aside Ossabaw Island “to protect, conserve and preserve the natural and cultural resources” of the island, and stipulates “that Ossabaw Island shall only be used for natural, scientific and cultural study, research and education, and environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of the Island’s ecosystem….” It also prohibits construction of a bridge or a causeway connecting Ossabaw to the mainland or other barrier islands. The order places Ossabaw Island under the management of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, who continues to be its manager.
In 1998, the not-for-profit Ossabaw Island Foundation and the Department of Natural Resources signed a Use Agreement giving TOIF the right and responsibility to manage programming and facilities on Ossabaw Island in accordance with the Heritage Preserve guidelines. Over the past 20 years, TOIF has shared Ossabaw Island with thousands of people from across Georgia and around the world through natural, scientific and cultural programming on the island and on the mainland; and has restored, renovated or stabilized ten historic buildings on Ossabaw Island for related use.