Santa Rosa Island is a gem along Florida’s Panhandle coast, with 52 miles of white sand beaches stretching from Destin to Pensacola and buffering the mainland from storms while providing habitat for a great diversity of life. Despite its value to both nature and people, a bill working its way through Congress would reduce protections for some of the Island’s natural areas and facilitate the dredging of a channel across it. The Federal Government granted much of the Island to Escambia County back in 1947, with the stipulation that lands not be sold or conveyed to private owners and that they be used in the public interest. And so residents of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach lease rather than own their land. County governments in recent years began to tax residents on the value of their improvements in addition to lease fees, which led to a call to eliminate leases and to allow residents to purchase the properties they currently lease. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz represents the area in Congress and introduced legislation to eliminate the leaseholder system and in the process to maintain in preservation and public access those areas of Pensacola Beach designated as such. But the legislation leaves-out those same protections for Navarre Beach, which would allow local government officials there to reduce public access and to construct the long-discussed Navarre Passa massive navigation channel dredged across the Island.The Pass has been promoted for decades by those who want to accelerate development in and around Navarre Beach, with marinas and housing fueled by easy boating access into the Gulf. But the issue is not just the risky new waterfront development and resulting water pollution that the Pass would promote, but how the channel itself would dramatically alter the natural flow of water and sand.The Pass would send high-salinity waters into Santa Rosa Sound, potentially damaging seagrasses and other marine life. In cutting the Island in two, the Pass would interrupt the movement of sand and likely cause beach erosion along the Islandmuch of which is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. With additional concerns that the bill could lead to restricted public access on both beaches, strong local voices have risen in opposition. While the House version of the bill has already passed, its Senate companionS 1073 (Escambia County Land Conveyance Act)is still awaiting action. Contact Florida Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and ask them to keep Santa Rosa Island fully open to public access and free of the damaging Navarre Pass by withdrawing their support for S 1073. Senator Nelson: 850-942-8415, www.billnelson.senate.gov/contact-billSenator Rubio: (850) 433-2603,www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact**correction: a photo previously posted on this blog depictedSanta Rosa Island, California from NOAA. We apologize for this mistake.