KEY WEST — The Key West National Wildlife Refuge is 100 years old, seemingly as pristine and wild as it was in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt made it part of his conservation legacy.
"The refuge is the greatest gift any president could have given his country," said Tom Wilmers, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a wonderful, fragile, wild place."
The refuge, located off Key West, is full of life — and surprises. Green sea turtles nest on its sandy beaches. Rare Miami blue butterflies flutter along its dunes. Hawks use the mangroves for resting areas to and from the Caribbean.
Hurricane Wilma's storm surge devastated many of the refuge's 26 islands — and created one. Wilma Key became a haven for endangered roseate terns, piping plovers and red knots.
Roosevelt, began establishing bird refuges in response to the lucrative plume trade. Hunters massacred whole colonies of wading birds for feathers to adorn ladies' hats, refuge manager Anne Morkill said.
Development is an ongoing battle for environmentalists in the Keys. But the establishment of the refuge thwarted the potential for building on the islands within its borders — except for privately owned Ballast Key. A four-bedroom mansion and three-bedroom guesthouse sit on the 26-acre island, which was for sale earlier this year for $13.8-million.
The rest of the refuge serves as a habitat for 250 bird species, including endangered white-crowned pigeons. The pigeons, which nest in the refuge's mangrove forests, fly daily to Key West's dwindling hardwood hammocks to find fruit to eat and carry back to their young, said Ken Meyer, founder of Gainesville's nonprofit Avian Research and Conservation Institute.
About 400,000 people visit the refuge annually, most while fishing, boating, snorkeling or kayaking, Morkill said.
Mangroves, which are not hospitable to human exploration, make up most of the islands. But a few, including Boca Grande and Woman Key, have sandy beaches that attract recreational users by boat.
In 1992, Wilmers helped put together a management plan that allowed public access to about half the beaches and closure of the rest to maintain unspoiled habitat for wildlife.
"It's still a problem," ranger James Bell said. "On holiday weekends, 30 to 40 boats can be lined up end to end along the beach, with large music parties, barbecuing on the beach and fistfights."
Cuban migrants landing on the islands also have caused problems. They leave behind debris and fuel that leaks from their boats. Some also camp, trampling precious habitat and destroying vegetation for campfires.
Then there's damage caused by treasure diggers, including a father and son from Tavernier.
"One had a vision of a religious icon buried on Boca Grande," Morkill said. "They dug a huge hole."
Fermin Fortun and his son, Fermin Fortun Jr., pleaded guilty in 2007 to destruction of federal property and served six months in jail.