- Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is located offshore of the main chain of the lower Florida Keys (locally called the "Backcountry") in Monroe County Florida. It consists of numerous small islands, mostly mangrove dominated, where entire flocks of shorebirds, mergansers, terns, wading birds, bald eagles and osprey roost, nest, and loaf. A few of the islands have endangered or threatened sea turtle nesting beaches.
The refuge was established in 1938 to provide a safe haven for the great white heron and other water birds. During the early part of the century, feathers from the birds were fashionable in women's hats and lead to a dramatic decline in the beautiful birds' populations.
Today, the refuge lands, surrounded by shimmering shallow-water productive marine habitats, represent some of the last of the natural Florida Keys. In accordance with the refuge designation legislation, all islands are closed to access. In addition, over 25% of the lands in the refuge were designated as a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1975.
Although refuge management has historically centered on the terrestrial habitats in the Backcountry, a burgeoning Florida Keys population supporting an increasingly popular tourist destination have created greater impacts to this pristine wilderness area.
To address this increased visitation (specifically from jet propelled personal watercraft, seaplane landings, water-skiing, airboats, and hovercraft) the Fish and Wildlife Service entered into an agreement with the State of Florida in 1992 to manage activities on water that were disruptive to the wildlife and wilderness character. The management agreement banned the use of these vessels within the boundaries of the refuge.
Management of the refuge is similar; with regard to issues, impacts, programs, and tools; with management of the neighboring Key West National Wildlife Refuge and overlapping National Key Deer Refuge.
The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge has a visitor center located along U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker 30. This center introduces visitors to the area's wildlife, plant life and birdlife and where boaters may explore and where they may not explore. Sea kayaking is a favorite area recreation offering a relaxing way to explore some of Florida's most pristine reaches. Outfitters dot US 1 providing guides along with gear necessary to reach the backcountry of the Keys. Excursions take the visitor to shallow flats where creatures such as spiny lobsters, stone crabs, barracudas, stingrays, and sea stars may be observed. The abundant birdlife is particularly enjoyed through a good pair of binoculars. Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular recreations as well; rental gear is offered through private outfitters.
Located in the southern Florida Keys, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is a stretch of land and sea encompassing the Waltz Key Basin, Turkey Basin and several main channels. Boat access only. Visitor Center is located at mile marker 30 on U.S. Highway 1.
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