Non-profit group working to protect historic Egmont Key from sea level rise

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Matthew Bane and Michelle Ellena are part of a group trying to save Egmont Key.
Matt Bane and Michelle Ellena are part of a group trying to save Egmont Key.

Egmont Key, a 250-acre island at the mouth of Tampa Bay, is rich in history and wildlife but is threatened by sea level rise.

A volunteer group is trying to mitigate that and is looking for volunteers to help.

As recently as the 1970s the island was about 550 acres, said Matthew Bane, a board member of Take More Action for Regeneration, or Take MAR, a non-profit group carrying on the legacy of of the Egmont Key Alliance, which was formed in 1991 to support Egmont Key but  dissolved about a year ago. The island is losing about four acres every year, said Michelle Ellena, also a co-founder of Take MAR.

Bane and Ellena appeared on WMNF WaveMakers with Janet & Tom on Tuesday (July 9) to discuss the ongoing work of the group and plans for the future.

Egmont Key is considered a microcosm of Florida history, Bane said. It was first charted by the Spanish in the 1700s. Seminole Indians were imprisoned there in the latter half of the 1850s before being forcibly removed to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Some never made it off the island, and their graves are still there.

The island was held both by Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War. When it was in federal hands, it was a magnet for runaway slaves and  a staging area for a battle in Hillsborough Bay off Ballast Point in Tampa. Fort Dade was built in the 1890s during the Spanish-American War. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were stationed at Fort Dade briefly before being deployed to Cuba. Egmont during the 1920s was where federal agents tried to capture rum runners during prohibition. Many buildings were burned down in a misguided fire set to ward off rum runners, Bane said.

The island includes the ruins of Fort Dade, but because of erosion, “part of the fort is underwater already,” Ellena said. That section is now a popular snorkeling area, she said.

Not only is Egmont Key rich in history, but it’s a critical habitat for gopher tortoises, sea turtles and birds. It’s  both a state park and a federally protected wildlife refuge. One of Take MAR’s goals is highlighting Egmont Key’s fragile environment and educating voters and visitors on protecting it. Boaters, for example, need to follow the rules for where to anchor and avoid the roped-off bird sanctuaries.

Take MAR  plans to hold an Impact Day at Egmont Key  on July 20 with various activities including guided tours, clean-ups and relaxation.

Take MAR is looking for volunteers for that event and for the other work it does, including tree plantings in Pinellas and Hillsborough. Find out more about the July 20 event and the group by visiting its website, Takemar.org.

Hear the entire conversation by clicking the link below, going to the WaveMakers archives or by searching for WMNF WaveMakers wherever you listen to podcasts.

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