Gulf County Commissioners on April 22 entered the fray to maintain full public access to St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The board unanimously approved for a letter to be sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lending BOCC support to efforts to preserve what remains of the skeletal management of St. Vincent.
Landy Luther, with the Supporters of St. Vincent Island, brought a plea to the board, urging commissioners to participate in the letter-writing campaign currently underway.
Two months ago, Luther said, the Supporters were notified that USFWS was undergoing an analysis of staffing and funding for national wildlife refuges.
“The information we got was really negative toward St. Vincent,” Luther said.
What information has been made available indicates the USFWS is considering further staffing and funding cuts at St. Vincent.
And while the refuge will not be closed – that would require congressional action, Luther said – “public uses and access to the island could possibly be restricted,” Luther said.
“That is bad news because over the last five years the island has been severely understaffed and under-budgeted,” Luther said. “We as supporters are opposed to any status change that would result in staffing and funding cuts.”
The island staff has already been cut in recent years with a biologist position eliminated and management staff reduced to one.
Funding for the island is now funneled through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the island no longer has leased office space in Apalachicola after the city declined to renew the lease.
That has conspired to put a highly-successful red wolf breeding program at risk and resulted in actions such as moving the annual meeting of the Supporters from a weekend to a weekday event due to staffing reductions.
The island is considered an environmental jewel.
The late Dr. Joe Collins, a world-renowned herpetologist from the University of Kansas, spent nearly a decade surveying the wildlife on the island.
He wrote several papers in addition to a pocket book on the snakes of the island.
As a barrier island that is essentially undisturbed from 100 years ago, St. Vincent was, Collins repeatedly said, a “unique” environment worth keeping pristine and natural.
The island has also become a growing tourist attraction, said Marie Romanelli, who with her husband operates a shuttle service from the Indian Pass boat ramp to the island.
“The island is becoming a major tourist attraction as well as wildlife sanctuary,” Romanelli said, noting that during a typical spring week she will field four or five dozen calls from those interested in exploring the island.
“Most people access the island from the boat ramp from Indian Pass even though it is in Franklin County.”
Those people also patronized businesses and restaurants in Gulf County, Romanelli said, meaning the island carries an economic impact for the county.
“St. Vincent is a gem,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager. “There will be an economic impact if they move forward with restricting access. A lot of people go out there. Businesses rely on this.”
And, Yeager said, the island is public land and should remain fully open to the public that pays the price tag for management.
“We don’t need to lose the eco-tourism that has developed out there,” said resident Pat Hardman.
The Supporters group gathered over 800 signatures on a petition urging the UWFWS to leave the island alone and submitted that petition.
Luther said the next step was a letter-writing campaign commissioners agreed to join. Time is of the essence, Romanelli said.
The expectation is that the USFWS will complete its staffing/ budgeting exercise in the next 15-20 days and the impacts of any decision to reduce public access would likely come this year.
“It is a treasure,” Yeager said.
Meanwhile, there is a possibility that the St. Vincent Island refuge will remain in Apalachicola, and may relocate into the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce building on Commerce Street.
Chamber Director Anita Grove told city commissioners May 6 that she is in negotiations with refuge representatives to possible lease space to them. She said the refuge would need about a half-dozen designated parking spaces, and the commissioners gave unanimous approval to designate the unpaved lot across Commerce Street as parking in the event it is needed.