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Gulf Islands National Seashore: A historical and natural treasure

Andrew Diller
Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent
Escambia County

Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS) is located along the northern Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi and Florida.  The Florida properties surround Pensacola, the site of the first European settlement in the United States in 1559.  An ideal deep-water harbor protected by a barrier island, a system of coastal defense fortifications dating from early Spanish exploration through World War II guards Pensacola Bay.

Arches support the weight of Fort Pickens Photo Credits: Andrew Diller

When Florida seceded in 1861, Union troops refused to surrender Fort Pickens, the largest of these fortifications that controlled entrance to the harbor.  The Civil War could have begun at Fort Pickens, but weather delayed a Confederate attack and South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter first.   After several unsuccessful battles to take Fort Pickens, Confederate troops abandoned the region and the Union remained in control of Pensacola throughout the war.

The counterscarp wall protected the landward side of Fort Pickens. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller

Located along shipping routes to New Orleans, Mississippi’s Ship Island also played a notable role in the Civil War.  An uncompleted fort on the island was taken by Confederate troops early in the war, but was abandoned soon after.  Union forces moved in, continued construction of the fort, and staged the successful attack of New Orleans from the island.  The Louisiana Native Guard, one of the first black regiments in the U.S. Army, was stationed at this fort known as Fort Massachusetts. Their successful raid on Pascagoula in 1863 was a first for black soldiers in the war.

Sunrise over the dunes at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller

As coastal defenses evolved, reinforced concrete batteries were constructed on many of the islands.  By the end of World War II, improved warfare technology rendered coastal artillery guns obsolete and the forts and batteries were closed.  Preservation of the forts and undeveloped barrier islands were the only battles to follow. 

Pensacola News Journal editor Jesse Earle Bowden, Mississippi historian M. James Stevens, and Edwin C. Bearss of the National Park Service championed the creation of a National Seashore to protect these historical resources.  After convincing municipalities in both states to donate land, Congressmen Robert Sikes of Florida and William M. Colmer of Mississippi presented the bill that was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971.  The National Seashore would also preserve pristine barrier island, coastal, and aquatic ecosystems.  With adjacent waters included, more than eighty percent of the park is under water. 

Additionally, President John Quincy Adams authorized the first and only federal tree farm in 1828.  Live oak trees were cultivated for shipbuilding.  The advent of iron and steel warships diminished demand for live oak timber, but this historical forest is preserved at the Naval Live Oaks area of GINS. 

Increased coastal development has made the park a sanctuary for a variety of threatened and endangered species including nesting shore birds, beach mice, and sea turtles.  Urban stormwater runoff and increased boating activity threaten water quality and seagrass beds.  Seagrass beds are nursery grounds for a majority of the commercially valued fish species in the Gulf.  Gulf Islands National Seashore continues to work to protect these limited resources while providing public access to the beaches and waterways.

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://okaloosa.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2012/02/28/gulf-islands-national-seashore-a-historical-and-natural-treasure/