Backcountry Management Plan
The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and includes the Key West, Great White Heron, Key Deer and Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuges. These refuges represent a collection of low-lying, subtropical islands between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean that protect all the vital habitats representative of the Florida Keys ecosystem, including the globally imperiled pine rockland forest, hardwood hammock and mangroves, and nearshore marine waters. These geologically and climatically distinct islands provide a haven for a diversity of native flora and fauna, including threatened and endangered species, a number of which are endemic and found nowhere else.
The boundaries of the Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuges encompass more than 400,000 acres of marine waters. While the FWS has full federal authority to regulate public access and activities on all refuge-owned islands above the mean high tide line, the waters and submerged lands below the mean high tide line seaward are owned by the State of Florida. In 1992, FWS entered into a management agreement with Florida that authorized the application of federal regulations within state waters and submerged lands to minimize wildlife disturbance and habitat damage from non-wildlife-dependent recreational activities, consistent with the laws and policies of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The FWS-State management agreement is commonly known as the Backcountry Management Plan.
The Backcountry Management Plan was developed following the dramatic increase in residential growth and tourism in the Florida Keys in the 1980s, which resulted in a rise in recreational and commercial use of the nearshore marine waters surrounding refuge islands and associated activities on the islands themselves. The growing popularity of shallow-draft vessels, particularly personal watercraft (also known as waverunners or jet skis), made previously inaccessible shallow water areas and tidal flats susceptible to adverse impacts caused by an increasing number of people in the backcountry. That led to an alarming rise in wildlife-human interactions, involving disruption of roosting, foraging, and nesting activities by birds and sea turtles for which the National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) were originally established to protect.
To curtail such impacts while also allowing traditional water-based activities such as fishing, boating, and diving, vessel exclusion zones were designated throughout Key West NWR and most of Great White Heron NWR where personal watercraft, airboats, water skiing, hovercraft, and aircraft landings are prohibited. Special buffer zones with idle speed, no motor, or no entry areas were also established near sensitive wildlife habitat.
After the establishment of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (link to http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/) in 1990, all four of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges were designated by NOAA as Existing Management Areas (link to http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/zones/emas/welcome.html) under the Sanctuary's marine zoning program. Additionally, NOAA adopted the specific place-based restrictions identified in the Backcountry Management Plan and designated those as zones called Wildlife Management Areas. This joint management approach supplements existing Refuge and State authorities with Sanctuary regulations, and facilitates the comprehensive protection of natural resources.
Beginning in 2012, the NOAA and FWS are jointly reviewing and updating the marine zones and associated regulations for the backcountry management areas. For more information about this process, visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Marine Zoning and Regulatory Review website.
Backcountry islands. Photo: USFWS.
A great white heron in flight. Photo: Michelle Wisniewski.
A closed area buoy in the backcountry. Photo: USFWS.