After a series of delays caused primarily by the recent hurricanes affecting Florida’s east coast, construction of the long-planned Barrier Island Ecosystem Center finally has commenced. The facility is expected to be complete by late 2007. Over the past two years, the project has undergone significant design improvements, and the facility was given a modified name, the Barrier Island Sanctuary Management and Education Center (Barrier Island Center). Caribbean Conservation Corporation’s (CCC) role in this urgently needed education facility located near one of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches remains the same. Through a partnership with project’s sponsor, the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program (EELS) in Brevard County, Florida, CCC will manage and conduct the educational programs offered at the Barrier Island Center.In North America, sea turtles primarily nest from North Carolina through Florida, with over 90% occurring in Florida. Within that range is the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20.5-mile section of shoreline between Melbourne and Wabasso, along Florida’s east central coast. Since its establishment by Congress in 1989, the Carr Refuge, named after CCC’s founding scientific director, has been a major success. The stretch of beach within the Refuge boundary is home to the most important sea turtle nesting habitat in the United States. More loggerheads nest within the Refuge than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, while in recent years both green turtle and leatherback nesting have increased significantly. Protection of these beaches is essential to the survival and recovery of these three species.
To that end, more than $90 million has been spent through local, state, federal and private land acquisition programs to purchase and protect the fragile coastal and barrier island habitats within the Carr Refuge. The success of this protected area for sea turtles is especially welcome news considering the continued growth of single-family residences and businesses along the barrier island on which the Refuge is located. Part of this success no doubt is a result of ongoing public education and outreach efforts by CCC and its partners aimed at making sure local residents and visitors participate in the stewardship of the area’s sea turtles and other wildlife.
For over fifteen years, CCC has led efforts to increase awareness and support for the Carr Refuge by distributing educational materials, generating media attention about the Refuge, conducting guided sea turtle walks and giving presentations to local groups and schools. While these efforts have been effective, CCC’s ability to sustain broad outreach programs in the Carr Refuge has been limited without a permanent educational facility located within the Refuge itself. The new Barrier Island Center will greatly improve outreach capabilities in the area.
In August 2006, EELS finalized construction contracts for the final stage of building the Barrier Island Center. A ground breaking ceremony was held to celebrate the long anticipated event. Construction began in September, 2006, with an anticipated opening date in late 2007. The Barrier Island Center will provide a public education facility for county school children, area residents and tourists. Through a partnership formed between the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program and CCC, the educational programs will be coordinated by CCC and will involve local community volunteers to deliver the educational programs, both at the center and at county schools.By contracting with CCC to run the Barrier Island Center education programs, EELS will minimize its operational responsibility for the facility, while capitalizing on CCC’s expertise in running a natural resource education center. For over a decade, CCC has run its own Natural History Museum and Visitor Center in Tortuguero, Costa Rica—site of a similarly important sea turtle nesting beach that is located in a national park. The Barrier Island Center partnership will allow CCC to expand the reach and effectiveness of its educational activities in the Carr Refuge. In addition, CCC will operate the Barrier Island Center Gift Shop, which will generate the revenue necessary to sustain the ongoing education programs.
As the past decade has demonstrated in the Carr Refuge, people can live and play on important sea turtle nesting beaches without significantly affecting nesting success. But it requires a well informed public that is committed to behaving in a manner that doesn’t harm nesting turtles or their nests. As the human population on Brevard County’s coast continues to grow, CCC and the Barrier Island Center will play an increasingly important role in protecting the fragile barrier island and its globally important sea turtle nesting beaches.
Once completed, the Barrier Island Center will provide a focal point for the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and the associated barrier island by providing exhibit space, a presentation hall, a small research library and ongoing educational programs that promote stewardship of the area’s fragile natural resources. The BIC will host visiting school groups from throughout Brevard County, as well as local residents and tourists. The facility, its gift shop and its exhibits will also be open daily to the public.
The Barrier Island Center would not have been possible without the generous support of the Richard K. Mellon Foundation. The Mellon Foundation purchased the abandoned “Chuck’s Steakhouse” and donated the parcel to Brevard County for the purpose of building and operating an educational facility. The County also owns two adjacent parcels stretching across the narrow barrier island—from the Indian River Lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean. The proximity of these adjacent public lands will allow CCC and the County to provide visitors with a unique interpretive hiking trail that weaves through a cross section of all the barrier island habitats.
For the past several years, CCC has worked closely with local residents, county commissioners and staff to secure the funding necessary to raze the old structure and build a new, state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly center. For the past 15 years, a coalition of public and private partners has worked to purchase undeveloped beachfront property within the proposed boundaries of the Carr Refuge. The goal has been to buy as much of this vulnerable beachfront habitat as possible—before it is lost forever to development. Within the 20.5 miles of the refuge “boundary,” about 9 miles of beachfront is now in public ownership. The remainder of the area consists of a patchwork of single-family homes, small motels and isolated undeveloped lots. For the most part, the land acquisition phase has concluded, and a coalition of partners calling itself the “Archie Carr Working Group” is striving to safeguard this unique refuge for sea turtles and other coastal wildlife. Construction of the BIC will fulfill one of the major goals of the Working Group by providing ongoing interpretive programs for residents and visitors to the Carr Refuge.