As a budget-cutting measure the State of Florida is considering closing a number of state parks including Egmont Key State Park at the mouth of Tampa Bay, which as been managed since 1989 under a cooperative agreement between the State of Florida and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Egmont Key is among the few remaining and critically important seabird nesting sites on the west coast of Florida, annually providing shelter and food for thousands of pairs of nesting gulls, terns, pelicans and other shorebirds. The Egmont Key State Park facilitates and controls public use and organizes volunteers on the island and provides around the clock rangers to protect its wildlife. If the state pulls out of Egmont Key, the island will be unprotected and subjected to disturbance and vandalism.
Last fall Birdlife International (http://www.birdlife.org) reported the accelerating pace of decline of the populations of the world’s 9,856 living bird species. On Florida’s west coast we have had a ring-side seat to this decline as we are one of the richest bird regions in the southeast, abundantly endowed with a variety of habitats and located on a key migratory flyway. Each spring and summer volunteers from local conservation groups struggle to protect the few remaining undisturbed nesting beaches and document the status of beach-nesting bird species.
The Birdlife International report attributes the causes of bird loss to a bewildering long list of human disturbances including industrial scale agriculture, logging, and fishing; mining and energy production; housing development; invasive species; and pollution. Additionally, the report predicts that climate change will cause major changes in the distribution and abundance of bird populations. Put more simply, the relentless growth of human populations, changing demographics and the increasing demand on natural areas, particularly barrier islands and beaches for development, recreation and resources are altering forever the natural systems of our planet.
The familiar Florida statistics are worth repeating. In 1900 our population was just over 500,000 people. By 2000 our population increased to just under 16 million—a 30-fold increase. Between 2004 and 2010, Florida's population is expected to increase from 17.5 million to 20 million. We are witnessing a the slow development of a crisis in our relationship with nature, one that will ultimately destroy our nationally famous life style and damage our economy which is so dependent upon tourism and untrammeled nature.
What can we do? Recent local actions, large and small, come immediately to mind, for example, the purchases of the large 871-acre Eldridge-Wilde well field in the Brooker Creek Preserve and the tiny Bird Island in Coffee Pot Bayou in St. Petersburg. We must continue to work with local governments to increase protection of multiple use public land as was done with the recent management plan for Shell Key-- another critical nesting site for seabirds.
Those of us of a certain age almost dare not think back to birds as we knew them 50 years ago.
We will not recover the natural world of our youth. Here in this most populous of counties in a rapidly growing state, we must work harder to manage and protect as much undeveloped natural habitat as possible while there is time. We need no better reason to do this than the importance of birds and undisturbed nature to tourism and to our economy, but on a much deeper level we owe this to future generations.
Isolated and remote, Egmont Key State Park must continue to provide protection for birds that have no other place to nest. The Legislature must hear from concerned citizens this month.
John Ogden, Ph.D. is USF Professor of Biology and Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg