By Stephen Harris
November 11, 2013
BALD HEAD ISLAND — At one time I would never have expected to be sticking my toes into the calm surf of the nearly deserted beach here while a subtropical ocean breeze blows through my hair and supreme quiet reigns — there’s hardly a soul in sight.
I was a young man when I first heard of this piece of paradise. News reports coming from Down East back then described a fear of the planned commercial development of this island at the southern tip of North Carolina’s protruding chain of barrier islands and peninsulas.
Environmentalists were crying at the time to keep any further imprint of mankind off of this special, nearly uninhabited island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and across from the town of Southport.
People would destroy this island, I heard. The ecology here was too fragile, some said. They’d turn this unspoiled paradise into another Myrtle Beach, they warned.
Then Bald Head Island dropped off the news radar, and I had assumed this spit of land accessible only by boat at the other end of the state slept peaceably and undisturbed.
But some years ago suddenly I began to see commercial pitches to come here and enjoy the world’s greatest vacation. It startled me. I had presumed there had been no development; I had not heard to the contrary.
But commercials described a thriving tourist destination. When I had the opportunity I had to come and see for myself.
So I retained those old, dire news stories in the back of my mind as we approached the ferry terminal north of Southport. And I wondered what would we find after the 20-minute boat ride over to the island.
Would we find a landscape of trampled sea oats, bleached skeletons of wildlife and mounds of humankind’s garbage in place of picturesque sand dunes?
Hardly. I learned that, at the start of development in the 1980s, planners donated 10,000 acres right in the middle of the place for a nature preserve, and they limited commercial development to less than six square miles mostly on the south and east ends of the island. The Bald Head Island Conservancy formed and maintains a strong presence on the island today.
With no private cars allowed, strict building restrictions, only 1,200 homes, 220 year-round residents, two restaurants, one grocery and prices high enough to keep the crowds away (gallon of milk: $5.19), the end result prompted the Conservancy director here, Suzanne Dorsey, to boast to me of “a place that lives in harmony with nature.”
I must agree. I find sea oats and sand dunes and fish and seagulls and natural beauty in abundance.
There’s a lesson to be learned here as we hear news reports these days of new environmental disputes in other places.
As we hear warnings about fracking, carbon taxes, rebuilding and reinsuring beach homes after hurricanes, and global warming, we Americans are being told that either we all are going to die from the derogation of the environment or that environmental extremists are out to deny us everything modern and push us back into the Stone Age.
I remember a time when I was younger when air pollution was the hot environmental topic. The air in America was going to become so poisoned, news reports warned at the time, that people were going to die.
Specifically, they warned about something called an air inversion triggered by a passing weather system that would come along and trap so much smog in the Los Angeles basin that everybody there would smother.
They soon came out with a made-for-TV disaster movie that portrayed a deadly air inversion in Los Angeles. A particularly touching scene had an exhausted emergency room doctor stepping outside for a break and finding a little bird thrashing on the ground in its death throes due to poisoned air.
But they never had an air-inversion disaster in Los Angeles. No one ever died from smog. The air there or anywhere else never turned toxic. The Clean Air acts of the 1970s helped clean the air, and science and technology have helped forestall such a disaster.
And neither has Bald Head Island come to ruin, despite the onetime dire predictions. As I look around here, it appears to me that they were able to work something out. And they did so beautifully.
I’m glad. Glad that I’m afforded an opportunity to sit on a deck of this B-and-B built in the 1980s with the historic 1817 Old Baldy Lighthouse standing guard back over my left shoulder.
I’m glad that I’m able to watch the sun set over a cluster of homes surrounding a man-made harbor and marina where people are enjoying a bit of the good life. And I’m glad they found a way to let people in here to enjoy this isle of beauty along with the wildlife and plant life.
Thus has Bald Head Island become my favorite spot on the North Carolina coast.
Not all environmental disputes end as pleasantly as did the one involving Bald Head Island, of course.
For instance, the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan demonstrated that mankind can indeed poison the environment. Our own Three Mile Island nuclear plant breakdown in Pennsylvania in 1979 showed that disaster can happen here as well.
But let’s not neglect to celebrate our environmental successes, like the one here on Bald Head Island. And let’s remind ourselves that not every dire environmental prediction that comes down the pike will come to pass.
On a personal note: Come out and meet me this coming Sunday at the community and school reunion and homecoming at Bridges Academy, 2587 Pleasant Ridge Road, in State Road from 3 to 5 p.m. I’ll bring copies of my book, “All Roads Should Lead To State Road,” a collection of our favorite “Hometown” columns that includes the school red paddle story. Check out the book’s website, http://allroadsshouldleadtostateroad.weebly.com/index.html.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.