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Tampa Bay's sentinel, Egmont Key, about to be left unguarded

Egmont Key State Park, with its 151-year-old lighthouse, is home to thousands of nesting birds. If the state cuts funding to the park, the rangers who help protect the nesting areas will longer be around.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2007)

Egmont Key State Park, with its 151-year-old lighthouse, is home to thousands of nesting birds. If the state cuts funding to the park, the rangers who help protect the nesting areas will longer be around.

John Ogden loves to walk the beach at Egmont Key.

"You really get an idea of what Florida must have once looked like," said Ogden, director of the St. Petersburg-based Florida Institute of Oceanography. "There are birds, birds, everywhere."

Every year, thousands of shorebirds nest on the island at the mouth of Tampa Bay. But Ogden fears that the gulls, terns and American oystercatchers may soon have to find another place to rear their young.

Egmont Key, managed by the state of Florida since 1989, is one of nearly two dozen state parks that could lose funding this spring as a result of state budget cuts.

"It would be a disaster for the birds out there," Ogden said. "Without any protection, the nests would just get trampled."

In these trying economic times, it is difficult to convince people to protect birds when they are worried about losing their jobs. You might be able to put a dollar amount on an acre of land, but it is much harder to put a value on the birds that nest on it.

Of all the islands of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key is perhaps the most unique.

The Spanish first mapped the island in 1757, and two years later, it was christened Castor Key after a local pirate. The English renamed it two years later after the Earl of Egmont.

By the late 1830s, merchant ships regularly traveled the west coast of Florida, but the mouth of Tampa Bay was particularly dangerous because of the shifting sandbars off this tiny key.

In 1847, two years after Florida became a state, Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse. The structure was completed one year later, just in time for the Great Hurricane of 1848.

A 15-foot storm surge, the same one that dug out John's Pass, nearly destroyed the building. A second hurricane four years later finished the job. Congress appropriated more money to build a new lighthouse, one that would "withstand any storm."

The lighthouse, finished in 1858, towers 87 feet, and served as the only aid to navigation between St. Marks in northwest Florida and Key West. That same year, warriors captured at the end of the Third Seminole War were detained there on their way to the Arkansas Territory.

Forty years later, when war broke out with Spain, the military began construction on Fort Dade to protect the residents of Tampa. But the war was over by the time the fortification was completed.

Fort Dade was eventually abandoned, and Egmont Key became home to rattlesnakes, gopher tortoises and birds — lots of them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took control of the key in 1974 and eventually turned management responsibilities over to the state 15 years later.

Fast forward to 2008 and the Legislative budget request process for the fiscal year 2009-10 when all state agencies were asked to reduce costs by 10 percent. To save money, 19 state parks, including Terra Ceia Preserve in Manatee County, would temporarily close. Three properties (including Egmont Key) managed but not owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would return to the original property owners.

Without rangers patrolling the park, it is doubtful the nesting shorebirds would get the level of protection they need to survive. The Egmont Key Alliance, a nonprofit citizens group, has objected to the proposal, as have numerous conservation groups and individuals such as Ogden.

"We can't do much about the beaches that we have already lost," he said. "But we can do something to preserve those that we have left."

To learn more what you can do to help protect this treasure of Tampa Bay, contact the Egmont Key Alliance at www.egmontkey.info.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.

Tampa Bay's sentinel, Egmont Key, about to be left unguarded 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 3:31am]
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