Looking At Gulf Islands National Seashore: What's Threatened By Oil Disaster?

Gorgeous beach settings, such as those at Perdido Key, and even armadillos could be at risk from the oil plume from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. NPS photos by Gail Bishop, top, and Brooke Merrill.

Dotted with pristine barrier islands, rich with fisheries and wildlife habitat, and lined with mile after mile after mile of blinding white-sand beaches, Gulf Islands National Seashore is a popular destination for both wildlife and human visitors. Threatening to mar this setting is a slowly growing slick of oil spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Though the latest mapping seems to indicate the slick from the Deepwater Horizon disaster just might bypass the country's largest national seashore and its islands, crews have been working steadily to erect mechanical booms around Gulf Islands' 11 barrier islands with hopes of containing any oil that comes their way.

What are they protecting? Gorgeous natural resources are rich cultural and archaeological history.

Natural Resources

As the noted the other day, the Gulf Islands offer important nesting grounds for migratory birds and a wide array of habitat for everything from West Indian manatees and four species of sea turtles to the tiny Perdido Key Beach Mouse, an endangered species since 1983 that burrows into the key's sand dunes for its home.

For those seeking the solitude and unique setting of a barrier island, the landscapes of Horn, Petit Bois, and East and West Ship islands in the seashore's Mississippi District offer wilderness settings. Horn and Petit Bois islands received formal wilderness designation from Congress in 1978. According to the Park Service, "the islands are home to a great diversity of plant and animal life, including a greater variety of bird species than any other ecosystem in the continental U. S. Offshore and onshore, the barriers provide habitat for marine creatures, birds and mammals, including endangered species like sea turtles."

Interestingly, prevailing wind and tide patterns along this portion of the Gulf of Mexico "continuously shift the sand of Mississippi’s barriers from east to west, causing island erosion on the eastern ends and island buildup on the west when natural processes are uninterrupted." As to why the sands are so dazzlingly white, geologists say the grains are "made of quartz sand eroded and washed down rivers from the Appalachian Mountains."

Come ashore to these islands and you can find patchworks of dunes, lagoons, salt marshes and even pines in the maritime forests. Among the wildlife that live on these islands are raccoons, alligators, and poisonous snakes, while in the surrounding Gulf waters are jellyfish and, in winter months, Portugeuse man-of-wars.

Running parallel to the coasts of Mississippi and Florida, these slender islands long have provided a measure of protection to both wildlife and human populations from storms. The salt marshes that are protected serve as nurseries for fisheries and open-air buffets for birds.

Cultural Resources

Historians tell us that Horn and Ship islands for centuries have "served as havens for human migration."

"Arrowheads suggest Native Americans visited first. Sixteenth century Europeans sailed offshore exploring the New World. As Spanish gold fleets sailed to Cuba, pirates might have struck from island bases against these slow moving, floating treasure troves," they say. "The first recorded use of the water offshore Ship Island for a deep water harbor was in 1699, when a French-Canadian fleet dropped anchor. The fleet's choice of anchorage was perhaps influenced by the 30 known pirates among the vessels' crews."

Ship Island figured prominently through 200 years of French, Spanish, and British colonization, followed by American nation-building. One interesting slice of history dates to 1771 when the island provided anchorage for two French ships carrying "300 young women bound for colonial settlements on the Yazoo River, Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula Bay. Two days later, a third ship dropped anchor with 81 more girls and young women, accompanied by Catholic nuns including Sisters Gertrude, St. Louis and Marie. Records suggest ages varied from as young as fifteen years of age to women in their early twenties."

Another rich chapter of American history is retained at the seashore in a handful of Civil War-era forts. Fort Pickens, Fort Massachusetts, Fort Barrancas, and the Advanced Redoubt, all saw action during the Civil War. Advanced Redoubt was unusual in that it was designed specifically to rebuff a land-based assault.

In the 1880s, the Park Service tells us, Geronimo and other members of the Chiricahua-Apache tribe were prisoners at Fort Pickens.

While the U.S. Army took over Horn and Ship islands during World War II, little evidence of Army activities remains.

As of Sunday, crews had completed installing mechanical booms, or barriers, around all 11 islands with hopes of preventing any oil that comes their way from impacting the beaches. Additionally, volunteers helped out Sunday by picking up any trash from the beaches around Fort Pickens to make an needed oil cleanup a little easier.

What remains to be seen, though, is how the oil impacts the fisheries and water resources, as 80 percent of the national seashore is underwater.

For updates on the situation from the seashore, check out this page.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Trivia, courtesy of the National Park Service

* Gulf Islands is the country's largest national seashore and is one of the top ten most visited National Park areas.

* Eighty percent of Gulf Islands National Seashore is under water.

* The Naval Live Oaks Area, purchased by the federal government in 1828 as a tree farm for shipbuilding timber, is the oldest protected property in our National Park System.

* The famous Chiricahua Apache leader, Geronimo, and his band were held at Fort Pickens, Florida, from 1886-1888.

* Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa, the largest colonial presidio on the Gulf Coast of Spanish Florida, was established in 1722 and was destroyed by a hurricane in 1752.

* Twenty endangered and threatened animals, including the tiny Perdido Key Beach Mouse, make use of habitat at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

* Over 300 species of birds have been sighted.

* During the Civil War, the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first all-black regiments in the US Army, guarded Confederate prisoners sent to Ship Island. The 2nd regiment became the first black unit on the Gulf Frontier to meet the Confederates in battle.

* The British occupied Ship Island during the War of 1812. From there they grayed their invasion of Louisiana in a failed attempt to capture New Orleans.

* Your last seafood meal may have had its start in the park. The Seashore's salt marshes shelter and feed many kinds of shrimp, crab, and fish.

* Fort Pickens remained in Union control throughout the Civil War.

* The western gate of the 1300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail starts at the Fort Pickens area.