Florida's Big Bend Wildlife Refuges
Thanks to hurricanes and exploitation, the group of Florida islands called Cedar Keys never approached the economic equal of the southern Florida Keys. On the heels of the establishment of a military hospital and depot in 1835 on Atsena Otie Key, one of the largest islands in the group, came Cedar Keys first permanent settlement. The wide beaches, fresh water, summer breezes, and shady cedars were a perfect setting for the summer resort envisioned by the enterprising southerner, Judge Augustus Steele. But an October hurricane obliterated all buildings including the hospital.
Then the focus shifted to the more protected Way Key, where the city of Cedar Key grew into a bustling port only to recede in the early 1900s to little more than what it is today, primarily a secluded resort town and artist colony.
The victim of unchecked consumption of natural resources, Cedar Keys saw its stands of cedar trees stripped bare, its shellfish running out, and the killing of thousands of palms unable to survive the harvest of their heart buds. These losses brought the demise of the sawmill on Atsena Otie Key (that supported Eberhard Faber's enormously successful pencil industry), the local fishing industry, and a palmetto fiber brush factory in the same building where an oyster packing plant was forced out of business.
Much wildlife hung on, however, and it was here that the young American naturalist and architect of the National Park system, John Muir, strengthened his appreciation for nature. Waylaid at Cedar Key by malaria on his way to Texas by ship, he recovered in the house of a mill superintendent and regained his strength by rowing from island to island and recording the sightings of gulls, terns, pelicans, and immense flocks of coots and sketching cactuses and Spanish bayonets, returning years later for a nostalgic visit.
With the exploitive human activities gone, President Herbert Hoover established Cedar Key NWR in 1929 by naming three of the islands as a breeding ground for colonial birds, gaining its 13th island in 1997 when Atsena Otie Key came under refuge management. The local water management district headed off scheduled housing development on the island by purchasing it and entering a management agreement with Lower Suwannee NWR. Refuge islands range in size from 1 to 165 acres.
The outermost 165 acre Seahorse Key with its sand dune height of 52 feet makes it the highest elevation on Florida's west coast. Seahorse is also a prime nesting area where boats must stay a distance of 300 foot or more from March 1 through June 30. The island contains some of the largest heron, egret, brown pelican, and ibis nesting colonies in the south. Over 200,000 nesting birds have been recorded in past peak years including 8,000 white ibis. Current populations number 10,000 or more.
Except for the seasonal closures on Seahorse Key, the sandy beaches of all islands are open for observation and beachcombing, but the shallow flats make boat landings difficult. An estimated 25,000 persons observe the islands from boats based at Cedar Key. The decommissioned lighthouse on Seahorse Key is used as a center for marine research and environmental education by the University of Florida.
The interior upland forests of all the islands are closed to public entry. Cabbage palm, red bay, live oak, and laurel oak rise above understory plants including cherry laurel, saw palmetto, yaupon, wild olive, prickly pear, red cedar, and Spanish bayonet. Mangrove swamps and salt marshes occur intermittently in low areas where there is tidal flooding. Mammals are few because of scarce fresh water, but at least ten reptile species share the compact living space with the birds, space that refuge supporters can be pleased to know is safe from further exploitation or over-visitation.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication