The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday 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 Tuesday, 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 volunteers providing island tours in non-summer months and volunteers monitoring sea turtle nesting on the island.
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.
The BOCC also lent some support on two fronts to the Port St. Joe Port Authority.
Commissioners agreed, 4-1 with Commissioner Carmen McLemore dissenting, to try to broker an agreement over a $200,000 loan the BOCC provided the Port Authority several years ago.
That loan was collateralized with the barge terminal land which the Port Authority recently lost in foreclosure.
The Port Authority has expressed a willingness to provide the old Arizona Chemical property – owned free and clear by the Port Authority – as collateral.
The Port Authority is also seeking an extension of up to three years on the first payment due on that loan, which is due next month and which the Port Authority lacks the funds to pay.
“That money is for economic development and the best viable option for that is the port so I support that,” Yeager said.
Commissioner Joanna Bryan said given the Port Authority’s current finances, the BOCC had little choice but to provide some breathing room.
Commissioner Ward McDaniel said it was essential to obtain some security on the loan.
Commissioners also agreed to a request from the engineering firm working on permit issues related to the dredging of the shipping channel to lend support to a proposal to deposit dredge spoil along the banks of the Gulf County Canal in what is already a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge easement area.