St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge is a part of the brand for the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, board member Tony Whitfield said Tuesday.
As such the county’s agency on tourism has a vested interest in the future and status of St. Vincent Island.
During its regular monthly meeting the TDC advisory council passed a resolution to reach out and join the lobbying campaign from the Board of County Commissioners requesting no change to the current status of St. Vincent.
The concern, as the BOCC heard more than a month ago after which the board wrote a letter to pertinent federal officials, is that St. Vincent could be “mothballed” by the federal government.
That would likely mean a reduction in management of the island, one of the last remaining areas in the country where wildlife has not been impacted by vehicular traffic, said Marie Romanelli, who is partner with her husband in a shuttle service from Indian Pass to the island and is a member of a non-profit support group for the island.
The federal term for the action is putting the island in “custodial status”.
Staff would be reduced to two employees – from seven just five years ago – and officials with the U.S. Department of Interior have said the cuts would impact management of the island.
Public access –which is allowed currently during daytime hours – would also be restricted, though to what extent is not yet clear.
“That is a resource that has helped Gulf County even in ways you don’t know,” Romanelli said.
She noted that in addition to tourism, the island typically hosts wildlife researchers in the winter and seagrass beds around the island serve as valuable ecosystem for several local fishery habitats.
In addition, Sambar deer hunts each year attract hunters from across the country.
Landy Luther, with the Supporters of St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, said his group provides monthly tours during the season which have become an attraction.
Due to management and public-access constraint, Luther said, it is unclear whether the supporters will be able to continue the tours.
“The tours are sold out months in advance,” Luther said. “We have to turn people away. You take those away and you are taking away public education about the island.”
Jennifer Jenkins, TDC executive director, said the island is a popular destination for tourists and noted that much of the interest for the island comes during so-called shoulder months outside of the typical tourist season.
“We have a tremendous amount of visitors who come to see St. Vincent,” Jenkins said. “I can’t stress how important this is to Gulf County.”
In addition, the island’s management staff no longer has an office after the city of Apalachicola declined to pick up the lease for next year and the budgetary issues are complicated since the island was put under the management umbrella of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
“The situation has been awful since it went under St. Marks,” Romanelli said.
Several TDC board members wondered if the agency should not examine ways to bring the office to Indian Pass, where most visitors to the island launch their visit.
Luther said a petition circulated by the Supporters of St. Vincent Island garnered 810 signatures and has been forwarded to federal officials.
The BOCC has also chimed in and Luther had a meeting with the staff of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office in Tallahassee last week. He is seeking meetings with the staff of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Congressman Steve Southerland.
“Anything the TDC could do to support what we are doing now would be welcome,” Luther said. “The Supporters are the only group promoting St. Vincent.”
The TDC board unanimously approved having Jenkins correspond with all relevant federal officials to express concerns about the future status of the island.
“This is obviously an issue that is important to us and a threat to our tourism here,” said board chair David Warriner.