When National Park Director Jon Jarvis traveled to Miami recently, the closest he could get to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center of Biscayne National Park was Virginia Key, a barrier island off the coast of Miami that overlooks the watery boundaries of Biscayne National Park in Biscayne Bay.
As with many local residents, Mr. Jarvis was stymied by the distance and inaccessibility of one of the country’s most beautiful and unique national parks. Biscayne’s land-side headquarters are located 20 miles south of Miami.
Overcoming those obstacles was the mission of the Park Service director, who came to Miami to speak to environmental educators and open a visitor center for the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades. Mr. Jarvis also took the opportunity to tour Virginia Key, where Biscayne National Park has been seeking a location for a northern visitor center, one that would serve as an “urban gateway” to the national park. The northern visitor center would put Biscayne National Park within steps of downtown Miami, accessible through the historic Rickenbacker Causeway.
“The issue is relevancy,” the director told those at the March 21 meeting held at the University of Miami Rosensteil School for Marine Science. Although he was speaking generally about the role the national parks should take in the next century, he might have also been referring to Biscayne National Park’s quest to become more visible to the more than 2 million people in the Greater Miami area. “We have a concern there are a lot of people out there who don’t know we exist,” he told his audience.
Biscayne National Park’s expansion to Virginia Key
Heralded for its rare combination of terrestial and undersea life, Biscayne National Park’s 173,000 acres stretch out serenely between the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, punctuated only by a string of small islands - semi-tropical “keys” -- strewn like green emeralds amid a translucent blue sea.
Biscayne National Park's northern boundary stops just short of the state-designated Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, which surrounds Virginia Key, a 1,000-acre island with a wilderness preserve at its core.
By expanding the national park's boundaries to include both Virginia Key and the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, it would make Biscayne perhaps the only national park that combines both remote island wild lands, such as those in Channel Islands National Park, with the easy accessibility to natural and historic sites provided by urban parks such as Santa Monica Mountains or Gateway National Recreation Areas.
The park’s expansion would also provide a vital link between the natural and historic heritage of the Miami region and help foster and fund the restoration and protection of important historic and cultural sites and facilities, such as the historic Virginia Key Beach Park, an 82-acre public park that played a critical role in the nation’s civil rights history as well as the the historic but neglected Miami Marine Stadium, an icon of modern architecture.
The Missing Key
Ecologically, Virginia Key, which is connected to the mainland by a 2-mile-long causeway, shares many of the same characteristics of the barrier islands currently found within Biscayne National Park. Within its green folds are ponds and waterways, a tropical hardwood hammock filled with rare, migratory song birds, and a large wildlife conservation area. At the island’s center is the 700-acre state-designated Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), established to protect shorebirds, herons, and egrets that forage within the site, as well as sensitive and or endangered species such as the American kestral, osprey, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon. The CWA’s beach dune communities are essential sea-turtle nesting areas and its mangrove forests provides undisturbed spawning areas for many species of fish and invertebrates, including several threatened and endangered species.
The expansion could include the southern portion of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, whose boundaries meet up with Biscayne National Park in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The Preserve is home to several federally listed endangered turtle species, including the green, hawksbill, leatherback, Atlantic ridley, and loggerhead and the federally listed American crocodile.
Biscayne Bay’s seagrass ecosystem provides habitat for at least 512 species of fish and more than 800 species of invertebrates, including more than 150 species of shrimp, crabs, and lobsters. All this diversity is due in large part to the Bay’s overlap of the Atlantic and the Caribbean marine provinces.
In addition to its ecological significance, Virginia Key has major historic significance. On August 1, 1945, the county designated the 82-acre Virginia Key Beach Park as the first African American beach in the city. The park developed out of the protest by a group of black men, led by Judge Lawson E. Thomas, the first black judge in the South since Reconstruction. It was the first act of nonviolent civil disobedience by blacks, a precursor to the national civil rights movement.
Another important historic feature of Virginia Key is Commodore Ralph Munroe Miami Marine Stadium. Completed in 1964, the stadium, which has been the backdrop for everything from boat shows to Jimmy Buffet concerts, is a part of Miami’s mid-century modern architectural heritage — an icon of modern design and landmark in the MiMo (Miami Modern) movement. Its dramatically cantilevered folded-plate roof of massive sheets of concrete “folded as delicately as origami,” is considered a tour-de-force of modern design. The 6,566-seat arena was designed by Hilario Candela, a 27-year-old Cuban-born architect exiled in Miami. The stadium was damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and has been unused ever since. Like so many spectacular early- and mid-20th-century structures, the stadium has been written off as obsolete by City of Miami officials.
Overcoming a Century of Neglect
Today, Virginia Key is threatened by a combination of neglect and ill-conceived development plans. But there is a growing public appreciation of the ecological, historic, and recreational significance of Virginia Key. In a March 2010 editorial, the Miami Herald declared that Virginia Key is "a veritable biological treasure on the edge of downtown. Ranging over 1,300 acres are mangroves, beach dunes and coastal hammocks that are home to ospreys, eagles, falcons and American kestrals. During migrations, the island is a layover for migrating songbirds, making it a year-round delight for bird watchers. Offshore you're likely to see manatees or Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins.
"The value of this semi-tropical natural haven can't be overestimated in a city that sorely lacks adequate park and recreation space. The city has targeted Virginia Key for a make-over, but so far its plans have given short shrift to Mother Nature in favor of concrete."
Virginia Key Could Be President Obama’s Legacy
And the historic values of Virginia Key are finally being recognized. In addition to National Historic site status in 2002, Congress passed legislation -- introduced by Congresswoman Carrie Meek and strong supported by other local members of Congress -- directing a National Park Service study of the park.
Unfortunately, in 2008, the National Park Service found the area to not be suitable as a National Park System unit, falling short in qualifications as a National Historic Landmark or in offering a unique culture source -- a finding that is questionable, since the study was completed during the Bush administration, which was not supportive of new national parks.
In September 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives reiterated the importance of the area by passing House Resolution 361, which “recognizes the extraordinary historical, cultural, and recreational significance of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park of Miami, Florida” and “acknowledges the significance of the African-American community’s struggle for equality through its collaborative efforts to preserve this historic site.”
The City of Miami currently owns most of Virginia Key, including the historic Virginia Key Beach Park and Miami Marine Stadium. Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve is owned by the State of Florida. These lands and waters could be acquired by the National Park Service through donation or exchange.
There is growing support from political leaders and the public for action to protect and adequately manage Virginia Key. However, progress on all fronts has been limited by the difficult financial status of the City of Miami. Private funding has been of some help, but it is unlikely to fill the gap. Adding Virginia Key, and possibly the adjacent Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, would not only help to address longstanding public concerns about the protection of these areas, but it would also make Biscayne National Park a more interesting and accessible national park.
“We’re interested in making the connections (with the American people), particularly where we have this urban/wild interface,” Mr. Jarvis told the community members gathered on Virginia Key. He was referring to the proximity of two national parks, Biscayne and Everglades to Miami’s teeming population center of more than 2 million people.
But he might have also been referring to the proximity of Virginia Key, which he had toured that morning.
And what better place to make these connections than on Virginia Key, in what could be the new, northern gateway to Biscayne National Park?