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Date of Issue: October 13, 2005

Passage Key refuge passes 100-year mark

sport pic

While waiting for a boat from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pick up the press representatives from this side of Tampa Bay on Columbus Day, I began to muse on several matters regarding Passage Key. Most locals don’t think of it as one of the nation’s earliest national wildlife refuges - second, fourth or sixth, depending on who does the counting.

Instead, they know it as famous for where boaters in the bay area tie up on weekends and holidays for nude sunbathing. I wondered if our flotilla would be like Columbus approaching an island and being greeted by naked natives. I’m sure the host officials were relieved this was not to occur on the day honoring the 100th anniversary of a small islet being set aside as a rookery and roost for large numbers of gulls, terns, skimmers and other shorebirds.

I then was reminded that the name Passage Key predates the name for Anna Maria Island by at least 15 years. A map said to have been ordered by Zachary Taylor in 1839 clearly identifies Passage Key, Egmont Key and Mullet Key. On the other hand, Anna Maria is called Long Island, while Longboat Key is called Palm Island. A copy of this map is on a wall in the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, should anyone care to study it.

Passage Key lies across Tampa Bay perhaps a mile north of Bean Point at the northern tip of Anna Maria. It is seen from there as treeless with a slender white beach. Actually, it is ALL beach.

After departing from the historic Anna Maria City Pier, it took us only a few minutes to approach it. Posted signs state it is protected from any access and boats must remain a certain distance off shore.

It is known that Passage Key today is much smaller than it once was, whatever the reason. I had to speculate it may someday become an “underwater refuge.” For the sake of the thousands of birds that call it home it at various times, let’s hope this never happens.

The anniversary ceremony took place on Egmont Key and was attended by government officials as well as representatives from a number of volunteer organizations active with the refuges in Tampa Bay. It was led by James Kraus, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge complex - the agency overseeing Passage Key and four other refuges on the Gulf coast of central Florida.

Speakers included James Kurth, deputy chief in Washington, D.C., of the National Wildlife Refuge System under the FWS within the Department of the Interior, and Mack Ames, a great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. Ames spoke of the passion of his forbear for conservation and quoted from speeches and writings both during and after his presidency. Ames himself is an active environmentalist out in the Dakotas.

The most eloquent speaker was Sam Gibbons, the retired long-time congressman from Tampa. Mr. Gibbons told of his work resulting in refuge status for Egmont Key and the need for the next generation to obtain similar protection for other undeveloped keys and islets in the central Florida area, especially near Tarpon Springs.

Richard Meyers, assistant refuge manager of the Chassahowitzka complex and head of its St. Petersburg office is in charge of three refuges in the Tampa Bay area. (The third is called Pinellas and consists of various mangrove islands which can be seen from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge causeway.) He told me that Passage Key Refuge resulted from local groups getting the national association of individual Audobon societies - the apparent precursor of the National Audobon Society - to publicize the need for protection and see that it was brought to the attention of President Roosevelt. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meyers confirms that Passage Key was used for both a bombing and gunnery range during World War II. On rare occasions, an ordnance still turns up. He speculates the birds likely flew over to Egmont Key about two miles away when firing and bombing practice took place.

Nevertheless, my active imagination envisions hotshot pilots getting brown pelicans in their sights during a strafing run. I wondered if they got extra points for blasting the larger white pelicans that winter here from the northwest.

During the boat trip back, I mused about what Teddy Roosevelt, the original General Bullmoose, would have thought of one of his wildlife refuges being used for bombing and firing practice as part of a war effort. I asked myself: Could that happen again? Could an aspect of that be happening today with cutbacks in funding for national parks and other environmental programs?

I then wondered if Passage Key might someday be suitable for an oil platform. Unthinkable, you say? Think again.

Three-fourths of the Florida delegation in Congress have just voted in favor of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico near our coast. The distance is immaterial because it puts the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

There are oil rigs, supposedly camouflaged, which is a joke, quite close to shore in California and a refuge official confirmed to me that there are leased oil wells in refuges right now.

Passage Key is a treasure, albeit little known to the general public. We need to do everything necessary to protect and respect its use as a rookery for the many birds we like to watch along our Anna Maria shore. We further need to see that future generations do the same. Just don’t look for me sunbathing on a boat anchored near the refuge.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A fifth-generation Floridian, Joe W. Chiles became an Island resident almost a year ago after having visited here since childhood. He is a former president of the Louisville Audobon Society as well as a former president of other environmental organizations in the Louisville, Ky., area.