Ogeechee Audubon has had a long-standing relationship with the Savannah Coastal Refuge Complex, acting in the capacity of Audubon Refuge Keeper for more than 20 years. While the issues surrrounding the Harris Neck Land Trust's request are complex and charged, we wish to support the Refuge Friends Group in their efforts to make sure both sides of the issue are heard.
Ogeechee Audubon has been conducting Christmas Bird Counts centered around the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge for more than thirty years. The Refuge is a key site for nesting wood storks, visiting migratory songbirds such as the painted bunting, and wintering ground for many ducks, sparrows and raptors. We would like to be able to maintain this area for wildlife.
Diana Churchill, President
Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges
P.O. Box 16841
Savannah, Georgia 31416
July 7, 2010
Dear Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges:
Recent local and national news reports have retold the story of the acquisition of land on Harris Neck in McIntosh County by the Department of Defense for a World War II pilot training base. After the war, that property was contracted to McIntosh County for use as a public airport. After well documented misuse of the property by McIntosh County, the property was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1962 for establishment of the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. These facts are not in dispute.
In 1979 and 1984 there were well publicized efforts by some of the original owners and descendants of original owners of the property to regain possession and use of the land. In response to a Congressional inquiry, the General Accounting Office issued a report asserting that the owners had been fairly compensated for their land and that other aspects of the acquisition were legal and consistent with practices around the country in acquisition of land by the Department of Defense and subsequent use for other public purposes.
There is once again an effort to regain use of that land by those descendents, via an organization known as the “Harris Neck Land Trust”. They have met and attempted negotiation with the Department of the Interior and have involved a number of elected officials. The Department has consistently asserted the position that the land was acquired legally and that its continued use as the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is the best and most appropriate use. Any decision to return the property to private hands would have immediate far-reaching consequences for other refuges and national parks whose lands were acquired through a similar process.
The Board of Directors of Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges has monitored this activity closely. In careful deliberation in our board meeting of May 26, 2010 we decided upon this position and these actions:
The legal issues and historical transactions are beyond the scope of our group. The Fish and Wildlife Service is fully engaged in representing its position legally and in response to public inquiries and we trust that process. However, it is very appropriate for the Friends group to assert the many values of the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge into the publicdiscourse, and to advocate for its continued operation and success.
1) Letters to the editors of regional newspapers will be sent by the board leadership to inform the press and the public of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge’s value for wildlife habitat, field research, and recreation for more than 90,000 visitors a year. Reminders of the economic impact of those visitors and of the revenue sharing payments to McIntosh County will be included.
2) Your board is asking the members of the Friends organization to write your Congressmen and other appropriate elected officials and inform them that the preservation of the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is important to you.
Harris Neck is in the 1st Congressional District of Georgia, served by Rep. Jack Kingston. Rep. Kingston has been asked by the Harris Neck Land Trust to initiate Congressional action to reestablish their ownership. It is critical, whether you live in the 1st District or not, that Rep. Kingston hear from Friends of the Refuges soon. A short letter or phone call to his local office is appropriate, with a message in your own words. Let him know how much you and the 90,000 visitors each year from all over the country value that refuge. Tell him about the significance of the refuge as a critical wood stork rookery; tell him you are a birder, a cyclist, a hiker, a boater, etc., and that the refuge matters personally to you and your family.Be sure to fully identify yourself with address and contact information.Let us know via e-mail when you have sent that message, or copy it to us. We would also appreciate copies of any responses you receive.
The Hon. Jack Kingston (Dear Rep. Kingston)
1st District of Georgia, US House of Representatives
1 Diamond Causeway, Savannah GA 31406
Congressman John Barrow of the 12th District of Georgia has participated in some of the discussions about Harris Neck and is the only member of our Coastal Georgia and South Carolina House delegation to routinely support appropriations for refuges. He needs to hear from you and particularly if you live in the 12th District.
The Hon. John Barrow (Dear Rep. Barrow)
12th District of Georgia, US House of Representatives
450 Mall Blvd. Savannah, GA 31406
Phone 912-354-7282Fax 912-354-7782
Congressman Joe Wilson of the 2nd District of South Carolina is a colleague of Rep. Kingston and his support would be useful as Rep. Kingston determines a position on this issue. Relate that the refuge in question is in Rep. Jack Kingston’s district and that it is a “sister” refuge of Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The Hon. Joe Wilson (Dear Rep. Wilson)
2nd District of South Carolina, US House of Representatives
903 Port Republic Street
Phone 912-521-2530Fax 843-521-2535
For those of you who live in McIntosh County, County Commission Chairman Boyd Gault needs to hear from you.He has been supportive of the Harris Neck Land Trust and needs to know that he has some constituents with another perspective.
McIntosh County Commission
PO BOX 584
Darien, GA 31305-0584
Please forward any copies of correspondence or responses received from Congressional contacts by email or U.S. mail.
Please take a few minutes to assist us with this critical communication. Each of the Congressmen also has a web site that includes a “contact” link for email messages. Phone calls and letters to local offices are compiled in an “issue” file and they are probably the best way to make the greatest impact.
Thank you for your support on this issue and for your continued support of our National Wildlife Refuge System.
President, Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges
Service’s view on key topics of discussion stated by Harris Neck Land Trust (HNLT)
Geographic Land Area of Concern –
Harris Neck is a geographic designation that includes more than just the Refuge, i.e. Julienton and Delta Plantations.
What equals Refuge lands - The Refuge is named Harris Neck which creates confusion about historic ties to specific tracts. The Refuge lands encompass all or part of the former Peru, Gould, and William J. King Plantations. The Refuge current acreage is 2,762; in 1962, the FWS acquired fee title to 2,686.94 acres. The Refuge is not bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, but extensive expanses of marsh, uplands, and tidal creeks.
HNLT area of concern - The African American community at Harris Neck located on Peru Plantation, was owned by the Thomas family since at least 1816. The Thomases began to divide the plantation in lots beginning in late 1870s-1880s. One of the earliest recorded deeds is 1879 for the First African Baptist Church.
HNLT claims that, no whites ever lived on Harris Neck except two white women who never had heirs; only black people. Descendents of former white owners are not part of the HNLT, nor are they entitled to receiving any parcel on the reclaimed land because they did not live there.
Service Area of Concern – All landowners within the boundary of the acquired fee title land (2686.94 acres) that were forced to sale. The additional Refuge lands acquired since 1962 are not a part of the HNLT issue.
Margaret Ann Harris’ 1865 will, transferring property to Robert Delegal, is irrelevant – she did not own the land now making up the Refuge. Her tract was located south and west of the Peru Plantation and the Refuge.
Reason for Return of Land –
HNLT justification- “original taking was illegal, and each and every transfer of title has also been illegal and therefore invalid”.
Sherman’s 1865 Article 15 called for the reservation of sea islands from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. Johns River in Florida, as well as the abandoned rice plantations up the rivers for 30 miles to be reserved for recently freed blacks. Freed blacks would be entitled to 40 acres of land.
The facts - His order was rescinded in 1866 by U.S. military authorities and the sea islands were restored to their pre-Civil War owners. Also, Harris Neck is not a sea island; none of the 19th century plantations on the Neck ever engaged in rice agriculture. These plantations’ agricultural operations centered around sea island cotton, small grains, and livestock [pigs, cattle].
According to the Solicitor’s Office the condemnation proceeding was carried out in accordance with proper procedures. Also the claim of disparity in payments has been studied and rejected.
Historic Ownership of Refuge Lands –
Statistics of white/black ownership - Over half of the Refuge lands were owned by white families in 1942. (Black families owned 1,021.59 acres on the Neck; white families owned 1,477.58 acres. Approximately 4.92 acres were owned by the Community or the County.) (Based upon the GAO report, the total number of black landowners in 1942 was 59.)
The HNLT claimed - that 70-75 black families were uprooted from Harris Neck in 1942.
Gould Landing Cemetery - is not & never has been owned by the Department of War, the FWS, or McIntosh County. Care & maintenance are solely the responsibility of the Harris Neck African American Community/HNLT.
HNLT claimed - that the Army Air Corps damaged or destroyed a cemetery around First African Baptist Church is not borne out by available documents, such as contemporary maps or oral interviews. Elder McIntosh related to Bessie Lewis, McIntosh County historian that no cemetery or burying ground at Church, but deceased members of the community were always buried at Gould Landing Cemetery.
Land Sale Prices of the Early 1940’s -
HNLT claims - Black owners received 40% less than white owners.
White verses Black Price Per Acre - The average price that white owners were paid is skewed by the price paid for the 55.89-acre, Tract 143, owned by Lily Livingston. Miss Livingston received $24,764 for this parcel. Tract 143 is located on the high bluff overlooking the South Newport River. Present on the tract were a 2-story Shingle style country house, an indoor pool, outbuildings (stables, sheds, reflecting pool, etc.), ornamental garden with a fountain, and a dock with deepwater access. This amount reflects approximately half or 46% of what was paid to all of the white land owners.
If one recalculates the average cost/acre paid to white owners minus Tract 143, the average becomes $20.39/acre and not $36.37/acre (GAO's average was $37.30/acre). Based upon an examination of the purchase price paid to individual landowners, it becomes clear that black owners were compensated for improvements, such as houses, outbuildings, and businesses. The 1986 GAO report indicated that the 59 black owners received $29,653 or $26.90/acre.
Fair Market Values - The GAO's examination of records dealing with military acquisition of land for Hunter Air Field and Fort Stewart shows that the former owners were paid $16.72 and $16.86/acre respectively. GAO used Fort Stewart as a comparative property as it contained "marsh-type terrain" similiar to that present at Harris Neck.
Landownership and Habitat Types–
Deep water Access verses Marsh/Wetland - In 1942, family members of the HNLT did not own any deep water access; this access was owned by whites (Miss Livingston [tract 143], Miss Clapp [Tract 170], E.M. Thorpe [Tract 140], Maggioni & Company [Tract 58]. Black owned tracts on the east side of the Neck, on which a number of the commercial oyster/fishing operations were centered, overlooked marsh.
HNLT and Additional Documents for Review –
Documents provided by HNLT to the FWS following the March 2010 meeting were not new – most, if not all, were on file at Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex, the National Archives, the Georgia Historical Society, and the published literature. Alleged 15 boxes of new information referred to U.S. Army Air Corps records for Harris Neck in the National Archives. Claims of racial animus, fraud, non-payment, promises that military would return lands to the Harris Neck Community, etc. are based upon anecdotes and no document, etc. has surfaced to back these HNLT’s statements. None were included in the documents provided to FWS & the DOI’s Solicitor Office by the HNLT.
Military Land Selection Decision and Purpose-
The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) established an emergency airfield at Harris Neck (Tract 140 – E.M. Thorpe) between 1929 -1932 along the Jacksonville-Richmond airway. The 1935 U.S. Navy Aviation Chart showed this field as two airstrips. The Department of War’s selection of the northern portion of Harris Neck was based upon existing airstrip, aviation & training needs of the Army Air Corps, etc.
The Army Air Corps built the airfield, not to patrol the waters for German U-boats, but as a training base for replacement fighter pilots for the European Theater of Operations (List of units stationed at the base can be provided).
Refuge View of the Land -
Harris Neck is a valuable & integral component of Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex and the FWS’s conservation mission. It provides critical habitat for T&E species, such as wood stork, LeConte & Henslow’s sparrows, painted buntings, etc. Initial mission dealt with migratory waterfowl, but since has expanded to include a broad spectrum of species and habitats that supports them. Coastal upland habitat is becoming increasingly rare on the Georgia coast.
Refuge also plays a vital role for the management of Blackbeard Island NWR, serves as a mainland base of operations and staging area for conservation actions.