When Jim Spangler first set foot on Egmont Key almost 20 years ago, he thought it was just a place to land a boat and have a picnic.
But as he learned more about the island at the mouth of Tampa Bay, he began to measure its worth by the number of sea turtles and shorebirds hatched each year and the relics that hold clues to those who landed a century or more before.
For Spangler and other volunteers in the Egmont Key Alliance, the spit of palm-laden sand offers a gateway to the past and a key to the future, if only they can keep the sea from swallowing it.
Wind and tides have whittled the island from 530 acres in the late 1800s to about 275, and federal overseers say they're alarmed at the rate the island has been shrinking in recent years.
"It's definitely accelerating," said Gisela Chapa, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant manager, adding that the island has lost about 100 acres since it became a national wildlife refuge in 1974.
Spangler said the solution is to build up the shoreline, but it won't come cheap.
"If we want to save this island — culturally, historically and naturally — we've got to get some money to get sand out here."
He's talking about a lot of sand: millions of cubic yards, expected to become available in 2014, when the Tampa Bay shipping channel is due for dredging.
More than that, though, the alliance wants to see activation of an Army Corps of Engineers plan to shore up the sinking patch of earth by burying concrete sheet pilings on the island's west side. Egmont needs the pilings to anchor the dredge material, Spangler said. The tab? About $8 million.
That's just the first step in a long-term plan to shore up the key. The total plan is estimated to cost millions more. Spangler said it's critical to raise enough money for the first phase before the 2014 channel dredging.
He acknowledged that's a tough sell in the middle of economic gloom. But he pointed to Egmont's list of credits, which include a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and designation as a Hillsborough County historic landmark.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that each year 200,000 history buffs and nature lovers visit the sliver of land, now about 1.5 miles long and a quarter-mile wide and accessible only by boat or ferry. The island has been a state park since 1989.
The island played a prominent role in Florida's Seminole Indian Wars, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. A 153-year-old working lighthouse still stands sentry, near the remnants of Fort Dade, an outpost built to protect Tampa from attack during the Spanish-American War.
Egmont has long been a haven for wildlife, including more than 30,000 bird nests a year, along with sea turtles and gopher tortoises. A cluster of cabins house on-duty pilots who guide mammoth ships through the bay to the Port of Tampa.
Significance, however, doesn't always lead to salvation. A short distance away is Passage Key, once such a productive avian nursery that it was among the first federal bird reservations proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
Today it lies under water except during low tides, when it pops up briefly as a sandbar. About 10 acres of it lingered as late as 2005, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosted an anniversary celebration there. Five years later, it was gone.
"Remember Passage Key" has become a mantra for people bent on saving Egmont. Spangler said Passage Key, though smaller than Egmont, once was big enough to cradle a large inland lake.
Spangler, who is past president of the alliance and a member of the volunteer advocacy group Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges, has spent about 18 years looking out for Egmont.
He and others familiar with Passage Key's fate said the sea breached the middle of the island during its final years, cutting it in half and speeding up erosion. They point to a spot on Egmont's western edge that is flanked by dead palm trees and say they see the same phenomenon happening on the bigger island.
Water splashes the crumbled remains of Egmont's former power plant, which was at least 30 feet from the water 10 years ago, said Tom Watson, who manages the island for the state parks division. Out in the water are two concrete gun batteries that were part of Fort Dade.
Spangler said the spot was once near the center of the key. When he first visited Egmont, water was only lapping at the base of the batteries.
"If the island is breached, we'll lose the gun batteries, the lighthouse and everything on the island," Spangler said.
Egmont aficionados successfully lobbied Congress in years past for money that paid for installments that totaled more than 1 million cubic yards of sand to stave off erosion. But storms and wave action from the shipping channel washed the improvements away almost as fast as they were made, Spangler said.
He said Egmont needs a more expensive fix, but federal appropriations are hard to come by. Instead, the two Egmont volunteer groups have prevailed on congressional representatives to support their efforts to secure funding from private sources, including money intended to mitigate the effects of last year's BP oil spill and a proposed natural gas pipeline in the area.
"We're looking at every way we can," Spangler said. "We think it's worth saving."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at email@example.com.