Smith’s Island in Apalachee Bay barely projects above the high tide line. It is almost entirely salt marsh, with only a few cabbage palms and Spanish bayonet near one end. This minimal presence belies the island’s importance ecologically, as a few local biologists and residents know well. For numerous coastal bird species, Smith’s Island is a rookery – a hotspot for coastal bird breeding. An annual nest census conducted by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge biologists has recorded as many as 1,500 nests there each season.
Protecting an important island such as this has been a top priority for a long time. Several years ago the Apalachee Land Conservancy, a 501.c.3 conservation partner, was fortunate to receive by donation a 50 percent undivided interest in the island, but was unable to secure the other 50 percent interest, which was in private hands.
John Whitton had known about the importance of Smith’s Island as a coastal bird rookery for a long time, and loved to watch the birds there from his deck. So, when he learned that the half of the island that was in private hands might be available for sale, this long-time refuge volunteer and member of the Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge stepped forward to contribute $5,000 toward its purchase.
John’s generosity was contagious. Almost immediately the refuge Friends group matched his gift, plus agreed to cover closing costs, and another conservation partner, the Florida Audubon Society, stepped up to match John’s $5,000 gift. Last March this combination of funds allowed purchase by the refuge Friends group of the 50 percent interest in Smith’s Island that was privately owned. And the ball didn’t stop there! Just last month the Apalachee Land Conservancy donated their half of the island to our Friends group.
With all the pieces of Smith’s Island now combined under one owner, the Friends of St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is transferring all 20 acres of Smith’s Island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now all of the island, and all of its nesting birds, will be protected in perpetuity as part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
An important component of this good news story is the partnerships that were activated among several conservation organizations in our region. And, of course, we thank the Alpha Langston Sumner family, whose willingness to sell their interest in Smith’s Island has insured its protection for future generations of coastal birds.