The Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North Florida Refuge Complex. A Refuge Complex is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas or other conservation areas that occur in a similar ecological region and have related purposes and management needs.
The Refuge provides habitat for a variety of wading birds and shorebirds including egrets, herons, pelicans (including the striking American White Pelican), cormorants, American Oystercatcher, Magnificent Frigates, Swallow-tail Kites, and White Ibises. Ospreys and Bald Eagles also nest on both refuges, and relatively recent nesters include the whimsical Roseate Spoonbills and the state threatened reddish egret. During the 1960s and 1970s, nesting birds on the islands within the Cedar Keys NWR numbered around 200,000. Today’s numbers are down to approximately 20,000.
Snake densities on many of the islands are also significant. Racoons, small mammals and other reptiles also inhabit the islands. Other sea life including thousands of fiddler crabs forage along beaches and marshes.
The Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (Cedar Keys NWR) was established in 1929. The 800-acre Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for wildlife and wildlife-oriented recreation. The primary purpose of the Refuge is to serve as breeding grounds for colonial nesting birds.
Cedar Keys NWR consists of 13 offshore islands ranging from 1 to 165 acres. Four of the islands (Snake Key, Bird Key, North Key, and Seahorse Key) are designated as Wilderness Areas.
Many recreational opportunities exist at the Cedar Keys NWR including wildlife observation, photography, kayaking, and inshore and offshore boating. The interiors of all islands, with the exception of Atsena Otie Key, are closed to the public year-round to protect wildlife and habitat.
Atsena Otie Key is the original site of the town of Cedar Key. It is approximately a half mile across from the Cedar Key boat ramp and a popular destination for kayaking, swimming, and exploring historical ruins. The island has a rich history dating back 2,000 years when it was first occupied by Native Americans. The Cedar Key Historical Society has a tremendous amount of information on its background. A few highlights are presented here.
In modern times, the island was used as a trading post and support to the U.S. Army during the First and Second Seminole wars (1816-1818 and 1835-1842 respectively). It served eventually as Army headquarters and became known as Depot Key. Augustus Steele claimed the island under the Armed Occupation Act and renamed it Atsena Otie where he built cottages for wealthy Florida and Georgia planters.
The island continued to grow and become an important economic center for lumber, and eventually the Faber Mill was constructed for the production of cedar pencils. In 1858 the town of Atsena Otie was officially chartered by the Florida state legislature. By the time of the 1860 Census there were 215 men, women and children living in 30 households on the island.
In 1862 the island was impacted by Civil War activities. It was blockaded by the Union Navy’s Gulf Blockade Squadron of Key West. Soon afterwards shipping and fishing were brought to a halt.
Each time the island tried to regain its footing economically, a series of devastating hurricanes set them back. And ultimately, in 1896 a powerful hurricane and 10-foot storm surge crossed the island. The Faber mill along with most of the houses on the island were destroyed. The cedar forests that fed the mills had been cut down, and the mill companies did not consider it worthwhile to rebuild. A building and some of the houses that escaped destruction were floated across to Cedar Key, and lumber salvaged from the wreckage of the mills was used for construction on Cedar Key.
While most residents moved from Atsena Otie Key to Cedar Key after the hurricane, some stayed into the 20th century. The last wooden house standing on the island was torn down in the 1940s and the lumber was taken to Cedar Key.
In 1997 Atsena Otie Key was sold to the Suwannee River Water Management District who entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the island managed as part of the Cedar Keys NWR.
Imagine virtually walking around the island at the height of its commercial success. The University of Florida in cooperation with Digital Heritage Interactive LLC, is digitally reconstructing the environmental and social history of Atsena Otie Key through geospatial analysis and environmental modeling. A portion of the project is a virtual reconstructing of the island’s cemetery, complete with reconstruction of headstones. Click here to access this exciting and innovative project.
Seahorse Key is the highest island on the Gulf Coast, and is considered a relic dune from the Pleistocene Era when the shoreline went out many more miles. Early records indicate the island was used as a camp for native cultures before Anglo-Americans arrived. In later years around 1839, the island was used as an internment camp for captive Seminoles.
During the 1850s trade grew on nearby Atsena Otie Key and significantly increased shipping traffic into the area. To guide the ships, a lighthouse serving the Cedar Keys harbor was built on Seahorse Key. The Cedar Key Light Station was first lit in 1854. The light was taken out of commission in 1915 and became part of the Cedar Keys NWR in 1936.
The University of Florida has leased 3.2 acres of the wildlife refuge, including the lighthouse, for use as a marine laboratory since 1952.
On July 4, 2019, the Cedar Key Lighthouse came back to life with the help of a new replica lens provided by the Florida State Department, Division of Historical Resources. The Cedar Key Lighthouse is the oldest standing lighthouse on the west coast of Florida.
Seahorse Key was once reported to have the largest bird colony on the state’s Gulf coast – serving home to as many as 10,000-20,000 colonial nesting birds.
An alarming discovery was made early one morning in 2015 by an employee – all birds had abandoned Seahorse Key. There was no obvious explanation. To this date, scientists continue to study the situation, but no definitive answers have been provided. Fortunately, most of the birds have relocated to Snake Key, and some active Osprey nests remain on nesting poles around Seahorse Key.
Though Refuge beaches are open to the public year-round, Seahorse Key and Snake Key are the exceptions. They are closed from March 1 through June 30, including a 300-ft buffer around the island, to protect nesting birds.
Detailed information on the history of the island and recreational opportunities can be found on the link below.
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge Brochure
The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (Lower Suwannee NWR) was established in 1979 to protect the water quality of the last 20 miles of the historic Suwannee River – one of the largest undeveloped river-delta estuarine systems in the United States. The flow of the Suwannee feeds the estuarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico, habitat for the Gulf sturgeon and feeding grounds for resident and migratory shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl.
The 53,000-acre refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for wildlife and wildlife-oriented outdoor recreation.
USFWS provides habitat for resident wildlife and migratory species. Activities include forest management techniques that include forest thinning, planting native long-leaf pines and wiregrass, and mechanical operations in efforts to return the habitat close to its original state. Maintaining trails and roadways is also a major part of the duties of Refuge staff.
Prescribed fires are used on refuge uplands and wetlands to mimic the natural fire regime which improves habitat and food availability for many species of wildlife.
To improve wildlife habitat, Refuge staff undertake a wide range of projects. A variety of bat houses have been built for native bats like the Brazilian free-tail and Rafinesque’s big-eared bats. To provide habitat for native pollinators, bee blocks are used, a pollinator garden is maintained, and mowing schedules are modified to avoid disturbing fields of wildflowers until butterflies have finished laying eggs and begin to migrate south.
Another primary mission of the Lower Suwannee NWR is to protect bottomland hardwood swamps and forests that surround the Suwannee River. Along with these unique wetlands, pine forests and scrub ridges provide habitat for thousands of land-dwelling creatures. White-tailed deer, eastern wild turkeys, gray fox, river otters, Swallow-tailed Kites, and Bald Eagles are but a few of several hundred species that inhabit the refuge.
Lower Suwannee NWR provides opportunities to enjoy the outdoors through wildlife-oriented recreation including wildlife observation and photography, fishing, and hunting. The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset 365 days per year.
More than 50 miles of primary roads are available for driving, hiking, or bicycling. An additional 50 miles of secondary roads are open to foot and bicycle traffic. Canoe trails, boat launch areas, and observation areas offer excellent access to many refuge areas that are off the beaten track.
Detailed information on hiking trails, vehicle and bicycle routes, boating opportunities, and hunting and fishing areas can be found on these links:
Shell Mound, on the Levy county side of the Lower Suwannee NWR, is located on Highway 326 about eight miles from the town of Cedar Key. An RV and tent campground owned and operated by Levy County is adjacent to the Shell Mound Unit.
Shell Mound attracts thousands of visitors each year. Some come to fish from the pier. Others put in their kayaks and small boats at the tide-dependent launch area. Some walk the one-mile Dennis Creek Trail through marshes and hammocks.
For many, the highlight of the visit is the walk on the self-guided, less than a half-mile Shell Mound archaeological trail.
Despite its unassuming name, Shell Mound (8LV42), is a large shell-bearing archaeological site that was once the location of special gatherings for Native American groups across the broader region.
The site rose to prominence as a ritual center at about A.D. 400 and continued through A.D. 650. Archaeologists refer to places such as this as “civic-ceremonial centers,” locations of both residence and ritual activity. Like other civic-ceremonial centers in the region, Shell Mound drew its significance from a nearby cemetery, the hallowed ground of ancestors from far and wide.
The site features mounds of marine shell (predominately oyster) measuring 20 feet high surrounding a large central plaza. Excavations by archaeologists from the University of Florida have discovered the remains of large feasts that took place in the summer – likely celebrating the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.
Learn more about Shell Mound and its inhabitants by taking the self-guided walking tour. The descriptive panels can be viewed here.
Shired Island is part of the Lower Suwannee NWR, and is located off CR 357 in Dixie County, Florida. It is bounded by Shired Creek and Johnson Creek and connected to land by a short bridge over Shired Creek.
There is a well-maintained refuge boat ramp and trail that provides access to the Gulf for renowned shoreline fishing and other activities. The trail leads to a 7,000-year-old archaeological site. A beachfront campground on the island is owned and operated by Dixie County.
Photography, hiking, fishing, and relaxation is the order of the day on Shired Island.
The Vista Project, also known as the Cummer Cypress Company Camp, is located adjacent to the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys NWR Headquarters off Highway 347 in Chiefland, FL.
“The Vista project is the highlight of our long-term Refuge public use plan,” according to Refuge Manager Andrew Gude.
This unique parcel with a relatively intact hunting and fishing camp has not been altered since the mid 20th century. It provides a remarkable view of Suwannee River life during that period.
The 14-acre site was donated in 2012 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by descendants of the original owners. The family retained a life estate on a portion of the property containing the Vista buildings and docks. They include the main house, cook’s house, boat landing, boat house, houseboat, dock, garage and several out-buildings.
The Friends of the Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (Friends) have been leading the historical planning, preservation, and development process of this special property on the lower Suwannee River.
An architectural firm was hired by the Friends to prepare a report about how the Refuge would ultimately use the facility. The project is funded by a grant that the Friends received from the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. Work on the report started in 2019, and a structural analysis of the buildings was completed in 2020.
It is the intent of the Friends and Refuge to eventually use this property and the historic buildings to develop publicly accessible displays that explore and interpret the role of the forestry industry that developed this area after the Civil War into the mid-late 20th century.
Once the property changes hands and the repairs are completed, collectively the Friends, the Refuge, with support from the State of Florida and the local community see this property as a prime visitor draw. It will highlight the forest industry that developed this area after the Civil War into the mid-late 20th century, and how all of this contributes to wildlife and wild lands conservation, and the national wildlife refuges protected here today.
The timetable for when this property will be turned over to the Refuge and when construction projects will be completed is unknown at this time and contingent on the life estate agreement.