Recently much attention has been paid to the Florida Keysâ priceless natural resources and the need to preserve and protect them. But you probably arenât aware that the conservation of these resources has been going on â with significant success â for more than 100 years.
This effort is especially important because the Keys are paralleled by the continental United Statesâ only living coral barrier reef. The reef ecosystem â much like a tropical rainforest â supports an amazing diversity of plants and animals.
To protect part of the reef, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established off the Upper Keys in 1963 as Americaâs first underwater preserve. Visitors to this remarkable spot can observe wildlife through experiences such as snorkeling, scuba, kayaking and glassbottom boat tours.
Pennekamp is incorporated into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, widely regarded as a national treasure, which was established in 1990 by the U.S. government.
The sanctuary contains 2,800 square nautical miles of coastal and ocean waters and submerged lands. Surrounding the entire Keys, it also includes vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Within its boundaries youâll find mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks filled with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life â and the sanctuaryâs creation means these ecological, historical, and recreational wonders can be responsibly managed.
The Lower Keys are home to the National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957 to protect and preserve habitats for wildlife â particularly the tiny, shy Key deer. A subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, Key deer average 60 to 100 pounds fully grown and are about the size of a big dog.
The refugeâs 9,000-plus acres include mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks. Besides Key deer, these native habitats sustain 21 other threatened and endangered plant and animal species.
And the best news? Since the refugeâs creation, its deer population has increased from a near-extinct 50 or fewer to a thriving herd of 600 to 700 â making it a wonderful environmental success story.
The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, provides safe nesting and breeding areas for great white herons and other migratory birds and wildlife. White herons are North Americaâs largest wading bird and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, theyâre found only in the Keys and on the South Florida mainland.
Stretching between Key West and Marathon, the refuge features more than 375 square miles of open water and islands in the Gulf of Mexico â reached primarily by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft boat.
A few years ago, the Florida Keysâ first wildlife refuge celebrated its 100th birthday.
In 1908, then-President Theodore Roosevelt created the Key West National Wildlife Refuge to protect and preserve a breeding ground for migratory species. At that time, the hunting of huge numbers of birds for their colorful feathers (considered the must-have decoration for fashionable womenâs hats) was decimating migratory bird populations.
âThe plume trading industry was so lucrative that in 1903 an ounce of bird feathers was worth $32 â twice the price of gold,â said Anne Morkill, manager of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex.
Lying west of Key West and accessible only by boat, the century-old refuge stretches 10 miles wide and 25 miles long. It provides nesting, roosting and foraging habitat for more than 250 species such as the roseate tern, osprey, bald eagle and magnificent frigate bird.
Thanks to the foresight of the people who created the wildlife haven, and the Keysâ other preserves, the island chainâs priceless natural resources have been protected and nurtured. May that protection continue âŠ for at least the next 100 years.