Preservationists Fear For Egmont Key's Future

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EGMONT KEY (2011-5-3) -

A historic state park at the mouth of Tampa Bay has survived a proposal to shut it down - at least for now. State officials proposed closing Egmont Key State Park and turning it over to the federal government. Preservationists feared that removing park rangers could lead to the ravaging of the park's historic sites.

But a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman says the plan has been scrapped to shut down Egmont Key and two other state parks: Three Rivers on the Georgia state line, and Forest Capital Museum in Perry, near Tallahassee.

This isn't the first - or the last - threat to Egmont Key , as we discovered during a recent tour to the tiny island.

John Colman revs up his 1977 Loach helicopter at Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands and gets the rotors churning for the quick hop over Tampa Bay.

SOUND: helicopter taking off.

Only 17 minutes later, we're past Fort DeSoto Park and are circling Egmont Key. From the air, it looks like a long, thin strand of sand pounded by breakers on the Gulf side. The southern tip is a protected national wildlife refuge and is home to hundreds of birds. A graceful white lighthouse punctates the north end, and scattered throughout are remnants of military installations that have long since receded back into the scrub.

Colman is a longtime member of the Rough Riders, the krewe that has taken on preservation of Egmont Key as one of its missions. He sees less and less of the island during every flight.

"Mother Nature, over the last 30 or 40 years since I started coming out here, has taken away so much of the island that it emphasizes the need to preserve what's left," says Colman. "The sea has washed away maybe a quarter-mile of the western shoreline, and that's constantly receeding. And this is only going to be here for another generation or two. And it seems like we need to be the stewards for our generation, so there'll be something here for our grandchildren to look at in the future."

That's the concern of several people who accompanied Colman on a recent tour of the key. For Charlie Spicola, its preservation is personal.

"My grandfather was here in 1898, he sold wine and ice cream and vegetables to the soldiers," he says, "and had many stories to tell."

Later, as a Tampa city councilman, Spicola helped found the Rough Riders. The shifting tides here have long claimed one of the gun batteries, and the remaining two would be in the saltwater too, if it weren't for the work of volunteers like the Rough Riders and the Egmont Key Alliance.

We take a ride in an electric cart down a brick road that was built in 1898.

"The old Fort Road here, along this road was all types of military installations," he says. "For instance, the barracks were here in 1909. Quite a large barracks. And as we go along, we'll see what a lot of the other installations are."

Most of the island was left to the mercy of boaters and campers until 1974, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over. But they never had much of a presence here and turned the island over to the state in 1989. The state posted a ranger on the island. Earlier this year, the state looked at handing it back to the feds to help trim its large budget deficit.

People like Spicola worry what could happen.

"You'll have people - the few people that do come out here, you might have boaters out here who have other interests at heart other than preservation," says Spicola. "And you would have danger to the turtles, danger to the birds, you'd have further stripping, further desecration of the area structures dating back to the Spanish-American War. So it wouldn't be a good thing for preservation. It wouldn't be a good thing at all."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection declined to be recorded, but did say for the record that Egmont Key is one of three state parks targeted to be removed from state control. The others are Three Rivers State Park on the Georgia state line, and Forest Capital Museum, in Perry. If it's okayed by lawmakers, the transition would take place in July.

Mike Pursifull tells a cautionary tale of what the island once was - before state protection.

"In the Seventies, there were so many people coming out here with boats and massive parties, that the place actually looked like a landfill," he says. "It was a dump. There was trash everywhere."

Pursifull has been coming out to Egmont Key for 50 years, and used to stay at some of the houses used by the shipping pilots based here at the mouth of Tampa Bay. He says the party atmosphere began to change in the 1980s, when some of the pilots got together and brought barges to haul the trash away.

"It was either two or three barges full of trash - I'm talking beer bottles, couches, refrigerators - I don't even know how it got out here. It was amazing," says Pursifull. "That was part of the thing when anyone could come and camp - and it looked like a dump."

I asked him if he was afraid if it is de-listed as a state park it may slide back to what it was at one time.

"I don't know," says Pursifull. "It still needs some kind of rules for protection. It needs something rather than become part of a free-for-all thing."

Earlier this year, DEP officials targeted Egmont Key State Park for closure - even though it only would save taxpayers $77,000 a year. Lawmakers are cutting about $4 billion from this year's state budget - but a DEP spokeswoman says Egmont Key has been spared - at least for this year.

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