Environmental groups and National Home Communities, the corporation that had owned Ohio Key, on May 2nd, announced the transfer of the 25-acre island of critical bird habitat to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, closing the book on an effort that spans more than three decades. Once known for its giant billboard, as a place to camp illegally and dump garbage, and continually being threatened by development, the island is now part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, joining 27 other such refuges in Florida and 570 nationwide.
"This is a victory for all those who treasure the unique environment of the Florida Keys," said Kathryn Fuller, president of World Wildlife Fund. "Everybody came out of this a winner and we are honored to be part of the team that made it happen."
For more than a decade, World Wildlife Fund has worked closely with local conservationist Marge Brown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the owners of Ohio Key to help broker permanent protection for this imperiled habitat and provide support for local environmental organizations.
Along with its donation of the land for the refuge, National Home Communities will improve the environmental performance of Sunshine Key – the existing RV resort development that shares the island with Ohio Key – building an advanced wastewater treatment facility and protecting beach areas for nesting turtles. The company will also pay for improvements in the new wildlife refuge, including removal of garbage and invasive species and the planting of indigenous plants.
"National Home Communities, representing 42 RV resorts in Arizona, California, Texas and Florida, is proud to have made the creation of the Ohio Key Wildlife Refuge a reality by transferring the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," said Don Craig, president of the Craig Corporation, speaking on behalf of David Napp, CEO of National Home Communities. "We are committed to the protection of the fragile environment of the Florida Keys, as exemplified in the Sunshine Key redevelopment proposal which has been endorsed by numerous environmental representatives, including World Wildlife Fund."
Despite years of abuse and neglect Ohio Key remains home to the federally threatened piping plover as well as numerous other birds including the roseate spoonbill, ibis, herons, egrets, hawks and eagles. The key is a critical site for the thousands of birds that live in the Keys and birds that use it as a stopover during their migrations.
"If environmentalists believe strongly enough and work together long enough, they can accomplish something as amazing as protecting Ohio Key for the piping plover," said Margaret Brown, longtime resident of Summerland Key and tireless advocate for the protection of Ohio Key. "We are fortunate to have National Home Communities to help us attain our goal."
The Atlantic Coast piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeds on coastal beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina and winters on Ohio Key and other locations on the coast from North Carolina south, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Caribbean. It was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. The greatest threat to the bird comes from development and human disturbance.
"Rachel Carson and Marjory Stoneman Douglas are smiling down on us today," said Jon Andrew
refuge chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeastern Region. "Margaret Brown shares the pride of this victory with all Americans as we celebrate the inclusion of an area once threatened by development into the National Wildlife Refuge System. Conservationists will no longer have to worry about whether Ohio Key will be there for piping plovers and other birds. That is the beauty of the refuge system: forever these lands are protected from threats to their ecological integrity."
Sixty-thousand dollars from the sale of the key will be donated to local environmental groups including the Florida Keys Audubon Society, Pigeon Key Foundation, Save a Turtle, Jessie Porter Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage, Sanctuary Friends of the Florida Keys, FAVOR, Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust, Marathon Wild Bird Rescue Center, Florida Keys Environmental Restoration Trust Fund and Seacamp.
"Marge Brown's unbending devotion to saving the wildlife of the Florida Keys has now delivered permanent protection for Ohio Key, giving the Keys a present that will be with us in perpetuity," said Lynn Mapes a member of the Board of Directors of the Pigeon Key Foundation. "National Home Communities' generous gift benefits the environment directly, and their grants will help Keys citizens conserve this national treasure."
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