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Eleanor Torrey West

Just off Georgia’s coast, Ossabaw Island had been in West’s family since 1924 and she spent her life preserving it by keeping it out of the hands of developers. She died this year, aged 108, and stood to show what one person can do for the environment to triumph in battling it out against the non-believers, or at least ‘non-carers’. West did a great lot for mainstream environmental conservation, embracing it well before most. In the 1960s, she rebuffed huge offers from developers and instead sold the island to the State of Georgia so that the public access could be limited, and the land remain undeveloped. The third largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, Ossabaw became the first plot of land protected under the Heritage Trust Act, established in 1975 to preserve natural areas from development and allow public access for research.

West was keen to avoid the building of air strips or ferry routes to shuttle visitors to the island. As a result, it is only accessible by small boat and is home to a variety of birds, sea turtles and even wild pigs, introduced, allegedly, by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Also (quite fun) she would read on the river bank with her pet, when the preservation of the island allowed for similar animals to continue to thrive there. Lucky, said pig, was injured by a hawk as a piglet and she nursed him back to health in her laundry room.

She also founded the Ossabaw Island Project in 1961, a retreat for scientists, artists and writers so they could come together to share ideas about the natural surroundings. This lasted until 1938, drawing novelists such as Ralph Ellison and Margaret Atwood, and composers like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copeland. Biologist Eugene Odum played a huge part in taking visitors to the marsh to explain how the grass collected food for fish and how they would, in turn, provide food for the entire coastal area. He was the one who explained to the public that developing land could endanger the whole ecosystem. Last year, a bill was brought up in the State Legislature that would have allowed development of around 15 acres on each of Georgia’s more than 120 heritage preserves. The group ultimately called on its partners to oppose the bill, which never went further than the committee. This encouraging result in fact echoed the years of work that Mrs West had made over the past decades to preserve the land.

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