Battle against nature: next storm could be last for road to Fort Pickens

Santa Rosa Island, a slender barrier island with a glistening white beach more than 40 miles long on the Gulf of Mexico is home to a storied history of battles by forces seeking to lay claim to it. Once the site of conquering Spanish explorers and the origin of what some historians consider the first shots of the Civil War, another force has been at war with the island for centuries.

Nature has been both an enemy and a blessing for the island. Home to some of the most pristine beaches in the world, the island — and its most treasured expanses — are under siege by a ceaseless fight against Mother Nature, as the Gulf of Mexico continues to rise and advances in its fight to alter the shoreline.

Fort Pickens Road is the only means of public access by road for visitors to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island off Pensacola. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Today, the federal government holds ownership over most of the 40 miles of shoreline of Santa Rosa Island under the authority of the National Park Service. The service is charged with preserving and protecting the shoreline, which is home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the largest and most visited seashore in the nation, with nearly 5 million visitors annually.

A cloud of uncertainty looms over the seashore however, as officials continue a fight against nature to keep the park’s most treasured expanses open to the public. It’s a fight that officials know they are losing.

“The biggest single issue to the National Seashore is what we’re going to do about Fort Pickens Road,” says Dan Brown, Superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Brown is referring to a seven mile-long stretch of road that connects Pensacola Beach to the Civil War-era fort. The road, first built in the 1950s, has been the frontline of the park service’s battle against the onslaught of storms that barrage the barrier island.

The narrow expanse of the island which Fort Pickens Road crosses is often overtopped by the Gulf of Mexico during hurricanes and other large storms. During storms, often several feet of beach sand and sea water overtops the roadway and forces the seashore to close the road, closing off all access to the Fort Pickens area, which sees more than 700,000 visitors annually, for days, weeks, or months at a time. In worst cases, entire sections of the road may wash away entirely, leaving in its wake nothing but the white sand that the road was built atop of.

(National Park Service/Special to The Pulse)
A van sits covered by several feet of sand on the shoulder of Fort Pickens Road on Gulf Islands National Seashore after a recent storm. (National Park Service/Special to The Pulse)

Now, at the direction of the director of the National Park Service, Brown says that time may be running out for the road’s future.

“It is the intent of the National Park Service to rebuild Fort Pickens Road as long as it remains feasible to do so,” said NPS director Jonathan Jarvis. What “feasible to do so” means is not so certain. Brown says that repeated rebuilding of the road has cost taxpayers more than $25 million in recent years after large hurricanes and storms have destroyed and washed out major portions of the roadway.

“As we rebuild roads and don’t have the money to keep them resurfaced, I don’t know what the impact of that is,” Brown says. “The western end of Fort Pickens Road is very narrow and low-lying and it’s very common to see it washed out.”

(Laura Bogan/Wrong Bros/Special to The Pulse)

After Hurricane Ivan destroyed much of the road within the seashore, more than $10 million was spent to rebuild the road, only to be washed out again by Hurricane Dennis shortly before its re-opening in 2005. Again, more than $10 million was spent to lay down and resurface a new road.

“It is very likely that with another major storm we won’t rebuild the road,” says Brown. “But that’s ultimately up to congress.” 

The history of the road to Fort Pickens is one of controversy, dating back to before World War II, when the issue of building a road along the shoreline of the barrier island was first discussed.

From the early 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries, the U.S. Army and War Department operated the Fort Pickens reservation. Access during this time to the fort had only been by boat or ship. As the fort began to fall into neglect and the federal government began to seek for its decommissioning, historians called for preservation of the old fort and the pristine Santa Rosa Island beaches in the 1920s.

The 1.5 mile section of Fort Pickens Road that is most vulnerable to storms and washing out is seen in this 1970s aerial photograph. (Pensacola Historical Society/Special to The Pulse)

The island was sold by the War Department, with the exception of the Fort Pickens reservation at the westernmost tip, to Escambia County for $10,000 in 1929. The land, according to the federal government, “was to be used for public purposes.” Prior to Escambia’s purchase the island had been federal land since the Adams-Onis treaty transferred Spanish Florida to the United States.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed much of the islands, stretching from Okaloosa Island off Fort Walton Beach to where Pensacola Beach is today, as Santa Rosa National Monument. The new area, containing approximately 9,500 acres, now fell under the authority of the Department of the Interior.

“Almost all 48 miles from, present-day Destin to Pensacola Beach, was a national park under Santa Rosa Island National Monument,” Brown says.

With much of the island now available for the enjoyment of the public, local residents and businessmen would begin capitalizing on the tourism opportunities offered by the untouched beaches. This meant creating public access, and to do that, locals began a long-fought effort to lobby the government to build a road that would span the island, including to Fort Pickens.

Local businessmen and Escambia County officials began development of the island in the 1920s, including the development at Casino Beach, seen here in a 1930s photograph. (Philip A. Pfeiffer/Special to The Pulse)

In 1941, the then director of the National Park Service, Newton Drury, called the idea of building a road across Santa Rosa Island, “an extremely expensive road to build and maintain.” Drury went on to say any road built, “would seriously affect the natural value of dunes and dunes vegetation, the safeguarding of which is a primary responsibility of the [National Park] Service.”

Drury rejected the plans for a road, specifically to Fort Pickens, in the newly designated national monument. It seemed, for now, that the only access to the fort would be exclusively by boat.

The national monument, however, didn’t last long. Under pressure from local businessmen and politicians seeking to build a road across the island to develop and profit off the natural resources and beauty of the beaches, Santa Rosa Island National Monument was abolished by Congress in 1946, only seven years after its establishment. Ownership of the island now fell back into the hands of Escambia County. It would be under their hands that the park’s future would be forever changed.

This 1940s aerial photograph shows early development of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island, before Fort Pickens Road was built. (Pensacola Historical Society/Special to The Pulse)

“Local residents and the public lobbied congress to dissolve the park to build a road across the island. That’s why Navarre Beach, Okaloosa Island and Pensacola Beach exists as they do today,” Brown says.

With development of Santa Rosa Island well under way, it was only a matter of time before locals would seek to expand access across the island and build a road to Fort Pickens.

“The military was out there for 120 years and access to the fort was only by boat,” Brown says. “After World War II in 1949, a one lane gravel road was built for the first time.” In 1954, the first two lane road was built, which would lay the footprint for the road that spans the section of the island today.

Eventually, while private development occurred at Pensacola and Navarre Beaches and at Okaloosa Island, a renewed effort to reclaim the seashore as a national park took hold. In the early 1970s, President Nixon proclaimed the seashore as Gulf Islands National Seashore, which for Santa Rosa Island included Fort Pickens and seven miles of beach between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.

With the road to Fort Pickens already built, a precedent was set for public access to the park, according to Brown. Over the next half century, as millions of dollars were spent rebuilding the road after storms to ensure public access, officials say they’re finally beginning to realize director Drury’s warnings.

A section of Fort Pickens Road crosses the span of Santa Rosa Island from Pensacola Beach to Fort Pickens. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

In facing an infrastructure crisis with the constant rebuilding and maintenance, the National Park Service is learning the hard way the long-term cost of Fort Pickens Road. The road must be maintained for years and years as seemingly constant storms and hurricanes batter the coast — a ceaseless strain on the park service’s budget. 

“It could be 30 years or it could be a storm next week,” says Brown, referring to the next storm that will finally close the road for good. “It makes no sense to put new asphalt on a road we’ll just lose again.”

In one last effort to extend the life of the roadway and what may be the last of any funding for the road, the seashore received more than $3 million this year from the Federal Highway Administration to realign the vulnerable mile-and-a-half stretch closest to the Gulf of Mexico. Brown said he hopes the realignment of this stretch of the road will give them a few more years of public access. The project is scheduled for completion next year.

Despite its inevitable closure, the National Park Service does see a light at the end of the road for public access to Fort Pickens. In 2017, a much-anticipated Pensacola Bay ferry service is scheduled to begin, which will transport visitors from downtown Pensacola and Pensacola Beach to Fort Pickens. The establishment of a ferry service, being funded in large part by funds recouped from BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill more than 100 miles off the coast of Pensacola, has been a goal of the community and officials for more than half a century.

According to officials, the cost of the ferry will be between $16-22 for a round-trip ticket with hop-on, hop-off privileges and will include ground transportation on electric open-air shuttles the seashore plans to provide when they ferry service begins. Officials have also said a local resident discount or commuter pass may also be offered, but that has not yet been decided by park service officials.

“Since the 1960s we’ve been talking about a ferry service,” says Brown. “We’re very excited about this.” While Brown says the ferry service will never be able to accommodate as many visitors as the road has historically allowed, for the indefinite future, it’s the only sustainable solution they have at their disposal.