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A refuge in more than name

Egmont Key is supposed to be a safe haven for wildlife. The small, idyllic island southwest of St. Petersburg was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1974, in the hope of giving oystercatchers, laughing gulls, pelicans, turtles and dozens of other animal and plant species sanctuary. But flocks of other creatures _ humans _ have been disrupting the fragile ecosystem.

Each year, tens of thousands of tourists visit Egmont to sun themselves on the island's beaches and visit its historic sites. The island also is a favorite destination for boaters. Some would argue the effect has been devastating. Vandalism and graffiti scar the island's historic buildings. Many shorebirds have stopped nesting. Others have abandoned the island altogether, leaving their eggs and their young behind.

That is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be applauded for giving the island back to the creatures it is supposed to protect. At the end of this year, Egmont's existing wildlife sanctuary will become 10 times larger, and about half of its beach area will be closed to the public forever. The changes represent a thoughtful compromise between the needs of theisland's wild inhabitants and people wishing to visit.

For example, on the island's southeast side, boaters will still be able to anchor, and sunbathers will be allowed to soak in the rays. Historic sites on the northern part of the island will remain open to the public. The wildlife will get most of the southern part of the island, as well as a northern beach that is bordered by sea grasses.

The only problem with the changes has to do with how they will be enforced. Even though a federal agency is behind the expansion of the sanctuary, it will be up to state park employees to keep people away from places they do not belong. That may be difficult. The park has only two rangers, who serve as law enforcement officers, maintenance staff, firefighters and guides.

The state should lend a hand by hiring a few extra rangers, but visitors can be the greatest help by obeying the new rules and encouraging others to do the same. Egmont Key is one of the few places in this country where nature is supposed to be safe from human encroachment. Visitors should either respect that or find another place to spend their free time.