Island impermanent: Safeguarding a touchstone
Since its first survey in 1877, Egmont Key has lost more than half of its land mass. While some worry that losing the island would be an incalculable loss to Gulf Coast Florida’s cultural heritage and ecological resources, others believe the best way to manage the island is to let nature run its course.
This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.
Since its first survey in 1877, Egmont Key has lost more than 259 acres, around half of its first recorded size. Sea levels have risen here by nearly 8 inches, and projections estimate that seas could rise an additional 1 to 4 feet by 2100. Dredging for massive shipping channels in Tampa Bay sucks sand away from Egmont Key’s shores, and waves from shipping vessels further destabilize what’s left. Increasing and worsening storms only compound the loss of land and magnify the threats to heritage sites on the island.
For those who care about the future of the island, this presents an urgent need to catalog as much as possible on Egmont Key — while they still can.
“The story of Egmont Key is in a thousand different pieces all over the place — sometimes, literally, like in people’s homes and boxes of artifacts they’ve collected,” said Brooke Hansen, an anthropologist specializing in tourism and cultural heritage at risk at the University of South Florida. “So a huge part of our job is trying to collect the information, the stories of everything related to Egmont Key.”
Hansen and her research partner, Laura Harrison, have been working to document Egmont Key’s history for five years. Hansen is director of the Sustainable Tourism program at USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability, and Harrison is an archaeologist and director of USF’s Access 3D Lab at the University. Both are working in concert with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to more fully understand the Indigenous significance of the island and tell its story to a wider audience.
“Egmont Key is a microcosm of U.S. history,” Hansen said. “We’ve got everything [here],” she added, referring to more than the island’s well-documented military history.
Their work has also zeroed in on the Indigenous history, Egmont’s role in the underground railroad, records of rumrunners hiding out on its scrubby shores, and its function as yellow fever quarantine camp.
“Even Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, is working teams there during the Spanish-American War period,” Hansen said. “So at this point, we have an enormous archive of materials that is literally thousands of pages that we put together over the five years.”
With a better understanding of Egmont Key’s role in the historical archive, Harrison’s lab then used virtualization technologies to scan, map, and analyze the physical heritage at risk. Doing so provides a vital digital record of the historic sites on Egmont Key in their current form.
These are things that really help define who we are today based on the people who have lived here in the past.Rachael Kangas, regional director of Florida Public Archaeology Network
Harrison said her lab also uses a unique combination of terrestrial and aerial LiDAR — “which is basically just a fancy way to say really, really advanced 3D data” — to project different sea level rise scenarios directly on the cultural heritage sites. This helps researchers measure precise levels of loss and change as these sites encounter climate threats.
“There’s a real pressing need right now to document them,” Hansen said. “Virtualization technologies [allow] us to go in and document all of these sites with millimeter accuracy to preserve them forever in case they’re wiped off the face of the Earth in a storm.”
Egmont Key is not alone in this existential crisis.
“It’s such a stark example of a lot of things that we’re worried about as archaeologists and as public archaeologists,” said Rachael Kangas, region director for the west central and central regions of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
A 3-foot rise in sea levels would have major consequences for more than 16,000 cultural sites in Florida. Six feet of sea level rise will threaten more than 34,000 sites. Some degree of loss is inevitable.
“Nothing is here forever. It’s just part of that process that we lose these physical lands,” Kangas said.
But while the disappearance of Egmont Key may not impact the Tribe’s remembrance of their history there, Kangas recognizes that the loss of the island may make it easier for the U.S. to ignore their role in imprisoning Seminole Tribespeople in an internment camp on the site. This, on top of how much of the history has already been suppressed.
“I think it’s a really great and stark example of how erasure happens — how we purposely forget these hard stories — and that’s on the U.S. side,” Kangas said.
Kangas has seen an increased interest in cultural preservation in recent years, and she wants to make sure managers consider historic and archaeological sites in their climate adaptation plans. These often aren’t on the radar in community resilience initiatives because there is rarely an archaeologist in the room. To make sure these sites get considered, Kangas and other archaeologists at FPAN regularly go to public meetings to ask questions about local preservation plans.
“The point is that these are significant, and these are things that really help define who we are today based on the people who have lived here in the past,” Kangas said. “As we see those sites seeing severe damage, I think people are really taking notice.”
The culmination of histories present at Egmont alongside the multiple interests in the island’s future make for a complicated story in its present day, but Kangas said this intricate interaction is not completely unique in the state — instead, the island represents the kind of complexity that will be common in Florida’s future.
“It’s a really great microcosm of some of these larger issues that we’re dealing with as a state of systemic racism, erasure, climate change, sea level rise, erosion, military presence, fishing in Florida,” she said. “For all of it to be on such a discrete site, I think, is maybe not completely unique but is special.”
It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere
In 2014, Captain John Blenker started a charter business in the Tampa area called Five O’Clock Charlie Boat Tours, named in honor of a dolphin called Five O’Clock Charlie who appeared at the marina to feed every day around 5 p.m. and was recognizable by two notches in its dorsal fin.
Since he started his business eight years ago, Blenker has averaged 200 boat trips a year, and about 90% of those either tour Egmont Key or fish nearby.
“I honestly think it’s the crown jewel of Tampa Bay,” Blenker said. “It’s the birdlife, the animal life. It’s just a pristine getaway that you can only get to by boat.”
Blenker has seen the island surge in popularity for recreational boaters and fishermen since he first started visiting eight years ago. Anglers fish for Spanish mackerel, mangrove snapper, lane snapper, flounder, pompano, and grouper near the island. Visitors snorkel nearby reefs — one popular snorkeling site is an artificial reef created from historic structural remains that eroded off of the island and into the sea. Blenker frequently sees a variety of marine life, such as sharks, rays, manatees, dolphins, and even seahorses floating in the seagrass meadows on the east side of the island.
But it’s not just the ocean life that people journey to the island to witness. The history of the island is a big draw as well, and Blenker shares lessons he has learned about Fort Dade, the internment camp, and recent scientific studies as he brings visitors to tour the area.
“Most people want to see the fortress,” Blenker said. “I’ve had people spend as much as 2 hours walking around on the island and [as little as] 15 minutes.”
Blenker is mindful of the bird life that inhabits the island and takes it upon himself to enforce management guidelines that are posted to protect the wildlife that rely on it. The black skimmer — a seabird with long wings and a thick beak that is a rich orange at its base and black at the tip — uses the island for nesting. Blenker commended state park rangers for protecting those nesting sites, but when the island is especially crowded, visitors sometimes spill over into closed areas.
“On a really, really busy weekend, you’ll see boats on the area that’s closed and people running around on the beach,” Blenker said. “I call the rangers and tell them about it, and I even yell at people myself and I say, ‘Hey, read the sign, it says: beach closed. What does that mean?’ So, I mean, I kind of try to police it. A lot of times, I get the finger.”
Over time, Blenker has noticed parts of the island become submerged and has seen the combination of boating activity from the shipping channel, storm surges, and visitors walking on the island contribute to the erosion.
“Every time one of those ships goes past there, you oughta see the waves that those things generate,” Blenker said. “You’ll have like four foot waves, three foot waves all the time, you know, every day. And that takes its toll on that sand and just wears away.”
Florida’s “11 to Save”
Every five years, Florida’s Division of Historical Resources publishes a Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan, which plots out historic preservation policies and actions across the state. The plan also works to encourage public participation, foster pride in Florida’s history, and promote preservation at local and regional levels. But even with this plan in place, the responsibility of preserving sites like Egmont Key often falls to concerned community advocates in regional contexts.
“We’re stewards to protect this place for this time that we are on Earth, and we have to hope that we make the right decisions,” said Melissa Wylie, CEO and president of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. “But we can all mess that up. Every generation can mess that up. And so it’s hopeful, but it’s also really stressful.”
Founded in 1978, the Florida Trust is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to advocacy, education, connection, and stewardship of Florida’s architectural, historical, and archaeological heritage. Every year, the Trust releases “Florida’s 11 to Save,” a list of at-risk or threatened historic sites from around the state, to build awareness of the urgent need to save historic places across Florida, and to empower local communities to take charge of those efforts.
“We want it to be a partnership, a tool of getting awareness out throughout the state,” Wylie said. “Driving action and working together and collaborating.”
The list is highly regarded by preservation advocates, widely considered a barometer of trends, threats, and concerns in Florida’s diverse regions. Each property is nominated by a concerned community stakeholder and then reviewed by a committee.
When the committee received a nomination packet for Egmont Key for the 2017 “11 to Save” list, “it was just profound,” Wylie said. “It was very unique for us. And with the threats being so challenging — like, what can you do about this? And how do you face the challenge and how do you remember things once they’re maybe lost?”
Whenever we keep finding people that don’t know the stories, then we know we still have work to do.Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance
At that time in Florida, it wasn’t just politically unpopular to acknowledge climate change as an imminent threat, it wasn’t politically permissible to acknowledge its existence. Then-governor Rick Scott’s administration had prohibited government officials from using the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” and “sea level rise.” And newly minted president Donald Trump was publicly calling climate change a “Chinese hoax.”
Wylie said Egmont Key represented a turning point for the Trust when the “11 to Save” committee decided to include the island on 2017’s list. “It was the first time that climate change and the impacts of climate change had been a factor and a challenge for an ‘11 to Save’ property — at least overtly named.”
It was an historic moment of recognition for Florida preservationists who had long clamored for attention to climate-threatened sites. But the island’s place on the list also underscored the fact that there was no universal, systemic blueprint for mitigating the challenges sites like Egmont Key faced, aside from educational materials, preservation grants, and workshops provided by institutions like the Florida Trust.
“It’s a process that I think we’re going to be having to face in a lot of different places as time goes on,” Wylie said.
“Should We Try to Save the Island?”
How much time does the island have left? What would it mean to lose Egmont Key? What would saving Egmont Key mean for those who have a connection to it?
“When I started coming out here,” said Dave Scheidecker, senior research coordinator for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, “that was one of the main questions we were dealing with.”
For years, Scheidecker and the Seminole Tribe Historic Preservation Office team conducted site visits, archival research, collaborative studies, and conversations with elders to piece together as complete of an understanding as possible before putting the ultimate question back to the tribal community.
“Should we try to save the island?” he remembers asking. “What should we do? And I’d say it wasn’t unanimous,” Scheidecker said. “In general the side was on, ‘let it wash away.’ Because as one person told me, if nature’s taking it away, there’s probably a reason.”
Quenton Cypress, the Tribe’s community engagement manager, concurs.
“‘Save’ means save the history,” Cypress said. “From our standpoint, we believe that this was such a bad place for us, that we had to have done some type of medicine to eventually make it go away. And because we wanted it to be just gone, not have to worry about being here and being trapped here again. But we’re still encouraged to come out here and save the history of it.”
But some preservationists worry that letting the sea claim Egmont Key would be an incalculable loss to Gulf Coast Florida’s cultural heritage.
“I understand his point of view, the Tribe’s point of view, why they would not want to see this place, [except] in their memories or in written history,” said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance. “But I’m looking at it, I guess, over the whole spectrum of history.”
The Egmont Key Alliance is a citizen-supported nonprofit whose mission is to restore, preserve, and protect Egmont Key for current and future generations. The group’s main goals include helping with erosion and renourishment initiatives, and restoring both the lighthouse and guardhouse. Sanchez said he first became acquainted with the island in 2007 and has since become an avid preservationist. He routinely visits Egmont Key, helping with site upkeep and advocating for project funding. Sanchez works closely with the Tribe and said there’s still so much history we don’t fully understand.
“Whenever we keep finding people that don’t know the stories,” Sanchez said, “then we know we still have work to do.”
We’re in the wildlife business, so we want to protect habitat as much as possible for wildlife.Joyce Kleen, wildlife biologist for Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Ultimately, while Sanchez is sympathetic to the Tribe’s stance, he points to the island’s value for more than just human history.
“Three quarters of the island is a wildlife refuge,” Sanchez said. “And if you’re involved in that world, you know that with the increasing [human] population, all the bird nesting sites are under extreme pressure.”
Egmont Key was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974 specifically to protect brown pelicans. Today it provides vital habitat for some 117 species of nesting, migratory, and wintering birds, as well as endangered loggerhead sea turtles, gopher tortoises, and other endemic species. As the island erodes, so goes a critical safeguard for vulnerable flora and fauna, and as the rate of human development rises, protected spaces for these species are more important than ever.
“We’re trying to combat the erosion with beach renourishment, but since I’ve been here it’s been a losing battle,” said wildlife biologist Joyce Kleen. “We’ve put sand on the island but then there’s a net loss of sand. It erodes back out again.”
When Kleen first started working on Egmont Key in 1990 with the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 60 pairs of black skimmers that would nest on the island. At the peak count in 2015, nesting birds grew in number to over 48,000 pairs from many different species. However, in 2022, only 184 pairs were observed.
The refuge manages two wildlife sanctuaries on Egmont Key — one on the south end of the island and the other on the east side. Both are closed to public access to protect eggs laid in bare sand and prevent birds from being scared away from their nests when people and dogs encroach on nesting areas. Black skimmers also sometimes nest on the northwest side of the island, which is then closed off as well.
Egmont Key is one of three national wildlife refuges in Tampa Bay designated to protect fish and wildlife resources of national significance. Its sister refuges are Passage Key and Pinellas National Wildlife Refuges, all managed as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Conservationists worry that the precarity of Egmont Key has a precedent in Passage Key, once a small but vibrant mangrove island with a freshwater lake. Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge was one of the first national wildlife refuges, established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was once home to the largest royal tern and sandwich tern colonies in the state. Some 30 acres of the 60-acre island were destroyed in a 1920 hurricane, and subsequent hurricanes Wilma and Alberto in 2005 and 2006 pushed the island entirely underwater. Passage Key was completely submerged from 2007 to 2013, and now, on its best days, emerges as a half acre to 10-acre shifting sandbar, a shadow of its former self.
Kleen said the refuge is currently working with the Army Corps to plan another beach renourishment project that could restore the island to its first recorded size. The hope is that these projects will help bolster the island from storms that hit the region like Hurricane Ian, which slammed into southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on September 28. The island saw minor damage to signs and a kiosk from the storm but managed to avoid any major erosion or flooding. In its current state, Kleen and other managers worry that the next storm will slice the park in half near the pilot’s compound at the center of the island.
“It’s getting very narrow there,” Kleen said. “The pilot compound’s been flooded three or four times with the last few storms that have come through, some with flooding from storm surge and some with rainfall, and that never happened before. It’s all been happening in the last year.”
Kleen said there are impacts to wildlife from the added sand that comes with beach renourishment, such as covering up the aquatic invertebrates that birds rely on for food.
“But if you don’t [add sand for renourishment], you don’t have an island. It’s going to be gone,” Kleen said. “People say, ‘oh, they’ll just go somewhere else.’ Well they may be losing habitat in other areas, too, because of coastal erosion, so it’s not that simple to go somewhere else. We actually lost nesting birds on Egmont Key this year and we’re not 100% sure why, but some of them went to Passage Key. Where the rest of them went, we don’t know.”
According to the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Egmont Key, which charts management plans over a 15-year period, the refuge’s goal is to protect and preserve the island. Kleen said the refuge communicates with the Seminole Tribe, and the Tribe had the opportunity to review the conservation plan during public comment periods when it was first established.
“We’re in the wildlife business, so we want to protect habitat as much as possible for wildlife,” Kleen said. “That’s why the island was established as a national wildlife refuge and that’s what we’re here to do is to try to protect that as much as we can.”
My goal is to get as many Tribal members out here as possible.Quenton Cypress, community engagement manager for the Seminole Tribe of Florida
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has asserted that climate change amplifies and exacerbates pressures felt by Indigenous communities across the globe. Debates around the futures of culturally historic sites like Egmont Key are intertwined with day-to-day climate realities.
Extreme heat, for example, is a major concern for Seminole Tribe members living in and around Big Cypress, Brighton, and Immokalee, where 40 to 60 days per year reach a temperature of 95 degrees or higher. The Tribe hired its first climate resiliency officer in 2020 to help coordinate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Back on the island, Cypress takes one last stroll along the beach as he waits for the afternoon ferry back to Fort De Soto. The wind has picked up and the sun is high overhead. Sand clings to his boots and black pants.
He makes a point to jump in the pristine water fully clothed when he visits Egmont. “I could go for a Corona,” he said, smiling, during the May visit.
In the time the island has left, Cypress hopes to facilitate as many in-person experiences there as he can for the Tribe’s approximately 4,200 members.
“We’ve had roughly 80 Tribal members come out here,” Cypress said. “My goal is to get as many Tribal members out here as possible.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.