© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Private Island To Become Research Station In Key West Refuge

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Ballast Key is about 8 miles west of Key West and was David Wolkowsky's retreat for decades.

The area to the west of Key West is one of the country's oldest national wildlife refuges. And now all of its islands are under federal protection.

Ballast Key was developer David Wolkowsky's special retreat, a privately owned island 8 miles west of Key West.

It was the only private land within the boundaries of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Teddy Roosevelt created that refuge in 1908.

Credit Google maps
Ballast Key is about 8 miles west of Key West.

Now Ballast Key belongs to the federal government, like the other islands in the refuge. But it will also remain unique, with Wolkowsky's home there turned into a research station.

Refuge manager Dan Clark says acquiring the island completes the Key West refuge. He says spending time on the 14-acre island is a special experience.

"Everything else is so remote," Clark said. "There's nothing else developed in the whole Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the rest of the islands are congressionally designated wilderness, so there is a kind of a blanket of tranquility and peace there."

The Key West refuge includes islands like Boca Grande and Woman Key that are popular weekend recreational spots for local boaters, as well as the Marquesas Keys, a famous fishing area.

David Wolkowsky was a native Key Wester who returned to the island in the 1960s and became a major force in putting Key West on the map as a resort with his Pier House hotel and renovations of family-owned properties.

He was a close friend of playwright Tennessee Williams, who made Key West his home for decades. Wolkowsky himself was known as "Mr. Key West." He died last September at the age of 99.

Wolkowsky's estate donated the island to The Nature Conservancy last week, which simultaneously gave it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys. At the same time, the Service and Conservancy reached an agreement for the Conservancy to manage the island, including the research station.

Credit Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
David Wolkowsky entertained visiting celebrities as well as friends from Key West at Ballast Key. He died in September, 2018, at the age of 99.

Wolkowsky had been talking to the Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for years.

"He wanted some very specific things. He wanted it to be protected forever. He wanted it to be used for research and education," said Chris Bergh, South Florida conservation director for the Conservancy.

"The way that his requirements were structured, The Nature Conservancy couldn't do that by ourselves. The Fish and Wildlife Service couldn't do that by themselves. But between us, in partnership, we could give David what he wanted," Bergh said.

The island was even listed for sale, though Bergh said he doesn't think Wolkowsky ever intended to sell it.

"I think he liked to be courted. I think he liked to show off the beautiful island. I think he liked to have people become part of his vision and his dream for the island," Bergh said.

One of Wolkowsky's dreams for the island was for it to be named after him. Clark and Bergh say that's the plan — but federal rules say you have to wait five years after someone dies before naming a geographic place in their honor.