In 1993, a group of local citizens organized the 90th Anniversary Celebration (the first Pelican Island Wildlife Festival) in cooperation with Merritt Island NWR and Paul Tritaik, then the Refuge Manager of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (PINWR). Following the Celebration, the group decided to form a “friends” group to continue anniversary celebrations and educational programs to support and promote the PINWR. Late that same year, the Pelican Island Preservation Society (PIPS) was organized, with the mission to support and promote the PINWR and the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) in their efforts to conserve habitats and wildlife.
Since the initial festival, PIPS, in cooperation with the Refuge and the City of Sebastian, continues to host the Pelican Island Wildlife Festival each year, to highlight the anniversary of our nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge. The festival is one of the top events held in Sebastian each year and attracts thousands of visitors.
Since the mid 1990’s, PIPS has participated in a number of Refuge cleanup days on “spoil” islands in the Indian River Lagoon and on the barrier island within the Refuge boundary. PIPS has also been active working with the Refuge on control of invasive vegetation, particularly Brazilian pepper on impoundment dikes, and moon vine on Pelican Island proper.
In the late 1990’s, the focus of PIPS expanded to include the support of the Refuge’s boundary expansion and subsequent acquisition of an essential “buffer area” of about 300 acres in private ownership, mostly in grapefruit groves, to provide a buffer for Pelican Island proper. In 1998, the four major landowners decided to sell their properties, and had options with developers to build major housing developments. PIPS recognized the great threat to the integrity of the Refuge and quickly seized the initiative to organize and lead the effort to oppose the development proposals through petitions, rallies, and public testimony.
After successfully leading the opposition to the development proposals, PIPS led the effort to build Congressional support to fund the acquisition of those lands. Over a period of four years 250 of the 300 acres in the buffer area were acquired and added to the Refuge at a cost of approximately $19 million, including $900,000 from a private donor in response to a PIPS call for public support of the project. PIPS was instrumental in meeting with the landowners to help convince them to be willing sellers to the Refuge. PIPS provided the essential leadership and planning within the local community to leverage the support necessary to assist the Refuge in achieving this major accomplishment.
In 2000, PIPS assisted the Refuge staff, in cooperation with other partners, to develop a phased project designed to stabilize and restore the Pelican Island shoreline. This project was necessary to address the impact of a serious erosion problem along the northwest shoreline. The size of the island had diminished from 5.5 acres in 1943 to 2.2 acres in 1999.
The project entailed building a natural breakwater (composed of fossilized oyster shell) offshore of the island to reduce wave action and stop the erosion. It also served to create more stable conditions for establishing native vegetation. Several thousand cordgrass plants and hundreds of mangrove propagules were planted by hand, along the shoreline protected from wave action. The planting work was done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) personnel, school children, PIPS members, and other volunteers. PIPS’ contributions consisted of providing volunteer labor to assist with the plantings, and $13,000 for a contract to cover planning and permitting of the second phase of the project.
In January, 2001, PIPS teamed up with the Ding Darling Wildlife Society to organize the Friends of Florida National Wildlife Refuges. Ten Florida friends groups joined initially and four more were added later. This informal organization’s purpose was to strengthen the effectiveness of the individual groups by, working to promote a better understanding of NWRS issues, networking, developing Board skills, and advocating collaboratively with all Florida refuges.
In 2002, PIPS contributed $2,500 towards the cost of the Centennial Trail kiosk to provide interpretation on the history of Pelican Island. The construction of the Centennial Trail Boardwalk and Observation Tower marked a milestone for providing the first land-based public access to the refuge in its 100-year history.
In 2003, PIPS helped the FWS plan the Centennial Celebration of the establishment of the PINWR and the NWRS. PIPS’ primary contribution was producing a national two-day wildlife festival showcasing different refuges and FWS programs from all over the country, which proved to be a huge success. PIPS also raised funding through donations on a nationwide project to purchase individual refuge flags, which were displayed along South Indian River Blvd. during the Centennial, and sent to every refuge in the country after the event. Attendance of the two-day event was estimated at 25,000.
In 2005, PIPS provided $5,000 to Eagle Productions to partner with others in the production of a PBS video concerning the slaughter of wading birds and other species in Florida as well as events leading to the establishment of the PINWR as the Nation’s first NWR. The documentary, entitled “Feather Wars”, was useful as a general information and educational movie.
In 2006, the Refuge Manager became aware that a small privately owned tract of land (the Paskor property), was to be partially cleared and a large number of oaks and cabbage palms destroyed. Since the property was contiguous to the Refuge boundary, and Refuge staff had plans to restore cleared grove land with native species, the manager entered into an agreement to transplant oaks and palms to the Refuge. Subsequently, PIPS agreed to partner with the FWS on the project and contributed $10,000 to be used to transplant oaks.
Also in 2006, PIPS wrote letters and sent emails to the Regional Director of FWS Region 4 and the Director of the FWS urging them to provide stronger support for personnel needs of the PINWR during the Workforce Planning exercise. Our premise was that since this was the first NWR, it should receive special consideration.
In 2007, PIPS President Walt Stieglitz testified before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies regarding the urgent need for additional funding and personnel for the NWRS and PINWR. Walt also met individually with Representatives and Senators and briefed staff of the Florida Congressional Delegation on funding and personnel needs of PINWR on numerous occasions.
For many years, PIPS has submitted formal written testimony to the Chairmen of the U.S. House of Representatives, Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies. PIPS also recruited its members, Pelican Island Audubon Society, and Friends of St. Sebastian River to write our U.S. Congressional Delegation, urging them to support increased funding for the PINWR and the NWRS.
In 2008, PIPS began assisting the Refuge with planning the Joe Michael Memorial Trail. Joe Michael passed away in late 2007, and the Refuge wanted to honor this man who had spearheaded the protection and expansion of the Refuge in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, by convincing fellow landowners to sell lands in the buffer area to the Refuge. The project involved improving an existing undeveloped walking trail around Bird’s Impoundment to include a kiosk, trail and interpretive signs, six benches, a 100 foot-long boardwalk, and observation platform (named Joe’s Overlook) with a spotting scope. PIPS became the manager for the project, assuming responsibility for fundraising, the permitting process, construction drawings, construction contract award and monitoring, procurement of non-construction items. The project was completed in May, 2009, and resulted in the old trail being transformed into a fully-developed interpretive trail complete with greatly enhanced wildlife viewing opportunities. The total cost was $40,832.
In 2013, PIPS provided significant financial support for the “Pelican Ride,” organized and executed by Mike Beck to highlight and celebrate the 110th anniversary of the PINWR. Mike biked from Washington D.C. to Sebastian in 14 days, arriving in time to kick off the festivities of that year’s wildlife festival.
Also in 2013, PIPS contributed $2,500 to Marvo Entertainment for the video entitled “America's Gatekeeper: The Story of Paul Kroegel.”
Recognizing the highly significant contributions of volunteers, PIPS has funded a number of volunteer appreciation events organized by Refuge staff.
PIPS obtained resolutions from local municipalities and Brevard and Indian River Counties stating support for increased funding for local refuges and the NWRS.
PIPS has covered the cost of reproducing Refuge brochures when the Refuge lacked the funding to do so.
PIPS has sent letters to the editors of the Press Journal and Florida Today urging more funding for refuges and to further public appreciation of national wildlife refuges.
PIPS continues to work with Pelican Island NWR staff to support planned projects. The “ultimate” project for our Refuge is to provide a proper Visitors’ Center to increase the visibility and knowledge about our country’s first National Wildlife Refuge, and to highlight the heritage of the Sebastian community.
Most recently, PIPS has worked with the Refuge and the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce to install a “web cam” at the Refuge that allows for online viewing of Pelican Island. Click here to visit the dedicated Pelican Island web cam site.