MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — If you look at a map of the barrier islands of Mississippi, one stands out as unique. Unlike the rest of the islands that are I-shaped running east to west, Cat Island is shaped more like an “L.” Naturalists say that is one reason Cat Island has the most diverse plant and animal life of any of the barrier islands.
One other thing unique about Cat Island is about to change. It has been the only barrier island that isn’t part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS). But with appropriations of $4 million for the purchase of Cat Island last year combined with $9 million in appropriations tentatively approved for this year, sometime in early 2002 Cat Island is expected to move from private to public ownership and become part of GINS.
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott from Pascagoula, who has been instrumental in obtaining funding for the purchase of Cat Island, said adding this island to GINS fulfills something he started working on 30 years ago.
“As a young staffer for then U.S. Rep. William Colmer, and shortly thereafter as a freshman Congressman, I began working on the effort to preserve our pristine barrier islands off the Mississippi, Florida and Alabama coasts,” Lott said. “This was done by establishing a national park, preventing commercial development and opening these islands to all who want to experience their very unique beauty. However, Cat Island, one of the largest and most beautiful of these islands, remained privately owned and apart from its sister islands in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.”
Originally the owners of Cat Island didn’t want to sell it to the government. Various development projects were considered including a resort and a private rocket launching facility proposed by a former astronaut. In recent years the owners of the island, the Boddie family, decided to sell most of the island for inclusion in the park.
Ecotourism, the term coined for tourism focused on natural attractions, is an increasing trend in the travel industry. Visitation to the area should increase with the purchase of Cat Island, says Jerry Eubanks, superintendent of GINS. Eubanks points out that the park is one of the state’s top tourist attractions, and believes that a lot of people will want to come out to visit for the day or camp overnight once Cat Island is open to the public.
“The impact of adding Cat Island to the park is hard to describe,” Eubanks said. “That island was the centerpiece of the park as it was originally planned 30 years ago. This purchase would fulfill the original intent of the GINS when it was established.”
Eubanks said the island is truly a gem. It is undeveloped and has a great diversity of vegetation and animal life. The varied plant life is what supports more diversity of birds and other animals. One example is the fox squirrel, a large red squirrel that is uncommon.
A private, non-profit group called the Trust for Public Lands is expected to do the initial acquisition of the island in early 2002. Then when the government completes funding for the island’s acquisition, it will be turned over to federal ownership by the park system.
The island contains about 2,200 acres, and the total price tag for the portion to be acquired by the park service is $25 million. The Boddie family plans to keep about 150 acres, and is planning a low-impact, ecotourism resort on that land.
George Boddie, who lives in New Orleans, said the family has agreed to limited development of a 28-unit inn or ecolodge, plus individual residential lots for members of the family on their land located on the eastern end of the island outside of the park boundary.
“Similar ecolodge concepts in or adjacent to other national parks appear to be doing well, and we feel like it could be a success on Cat Island,” Boddie said, whose family has owned the island for more than 90 years. “We developed conceptual plans for the project during negotiations with the National Park Service.”
The GINS spans a distance of about 150 miles from Santa Rosa Island south of Fort Walton Beach to where Cat Island is located south of Gulfport.
In addition to the money for purchasing Cat Island, the Interior appropriations bill also contains funding for two other tourist attractions: the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Civil War military parks of Vicksburg and Corinth.
The bill contains funding to help construct an interpretive center at the Corinth Battlefield that will have exhibits, video and interactive guides. Funds will also be used to help preserve the surviving earthworks there, considered to be some of the best examples of battlefield earth defenses in the country. The center will also focus on the significance of the “Contraband Camp” near Corinth, where thousands of former African-American slaves began a new life of freedom.
At Vicksburg, the bill provides funding to include the headquarters of Confederate Commander John C. Pemberton into the Vicksburg National Military Park. The park already attracts more than a million visitors per year.
The Natchez Trace Parkway, which sees 12 million visitors per year, is slated to receive a base operations increase. While the Trace has seen its infrastructure grow 50% during the past 20 years, the budget for operation and maintenance has not increased for many years. Lott said the significant increase in the Trace’s budget will help ensure it remains one of the nation’s most scenic leisure ways.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.