Those living closest to the ocean have a unique role in conserving wildlife habitats increasingly under threat during a time when development is undergoing a local boom.
That’s why the acquisition of Rattlesnake Key in Manatee County is a win for lovers of unspoiled Old Florida and local conservation advocates.
“Our region is continuing to develop, so there are fewer and fewer opportunities to restore habitats that can improve our quality of life,” says Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), an intergovernmental partnership that includes Manatee County, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
“It has critical coastal habitat like mangroves and is adjacent to significant seagrasses that are key to addressing future climate change because they absorb and sequester carbon,” Sherwood continues. In fact, mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests. The island was identified as a conservation priority by the TBEP last year, and for decades, local advocates have highlighted the importance of preserving the 830-acre property.
In the past, plans for a cruise ship terminal, homes and more had been proposed for Rattlesnake Key.
Now, the state will pay $23 million to preserve the island. It’s one of the largest coastal land acquisitions that made it into the $109.9 billion budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month.
Rep. Will Robinson, a Bradenton Republican, originally sought a $2.5 million state grant to help with the purchase, and last year, Manatee County Commissioners voted to contribute up to $3 million toward the purchase price. But with a surplus of federal dollars budgeted after the Covid-19 pandemic, a much larger amount made it into the budget passed by the Legislature.
TBEP advocates also recognized the value of nature-based experiences to nurture a community that's active and engaged with the health of the bay and encourages public access. To that end, the island—which is only accessible by boat—will become a state park. (Other high-priority areas the TBEP aims to conserve include the Little Manatee River and the Alafia River in Hillsborough County, says Sherwood.)
But will visitors have to carefully tread around the venomous reptiles for which the island is named? Most likely not. Although some say rattlesnakes can be found there, others say the island is named for its shape, which resembles a rattlesnake head with open jaws.