The Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area is known not only for its beauty, but also for the thousands of years of history found on its grounds.
A peninsula where salt and fresh water co-mingle within the Yellow River Aquatic Reserve, its pointed tip separates Blackwater Bay from East Bay. Escribano Point is renowned for its sunsets, its unique wildlife and its fishing, but also affords visitors a glimpse of the Native American culture that made its home in this region for thousands of years.
The 4,057-acre wildlife management area offers hiking and paddling opportunities as well as fishing and hunting, but two camping areas that had been favorites for adventurers have been closed to the public and it is unclear if they will be re-opened.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the area, has not before now formally declared its reasons for closing two camp sites at Escribano Point, but no mention of camping availability was discussed in its 10-year management plan prospectus. A public hearing was held in October to discuss the management plan, which is being finalized now.
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In a statement released Wednesday, FWC explained that overnight camping was having a detrimental impact on the Wildlife Management Area.
“The Bayside and Bayou campgrounds at Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area have been converted to recreational day use areas due to concerns over allowing camping on a Native American historical site within the Bayside campground and increased levels of vandalism at the Bayou campground,” the statement said.
The increased vandalism was forcing the FWC to increase manpower to monitor the grounds, repair damaged structures and pick up litter, the statement said.
“The FWC will continue to evaluate Escribano Point WMA to provide day use opportunities,” the email said.
There were some indications prior to the announcement that park visitors were at least in part responsible for the demise of camping opportunities.
Ken Ponsell, who operates Bluewater Bay Tours, a business that offers sunset cruises and other boating tours in the vicinity of Escribano Point, said that while FWC officials didn’t offer any response to questions raised about camping on the peninsula at their Oct. 5 public hearing, he knew officers were spread thin in patrolling the park.
“That park is not manned very well,” Ponsell said.
On a podcast known as Hike With Mike, Mike Thomin of the Florida Public Archeology Network spoke while hiking through Escribano Point. He said he’d witnessed vandalism to Native American midden mounds located within the Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area.
Midden mounds were used by the ancient society basically as collection basins for discarded materials like oyster shells and broken pottery or tools, Thomin explained. They hold important historic importance.
“It’s important when you visit a place like this that you enjoy it, take photographs, have good memories but make sure you don’t pick up any artifacts and certainly don’t do any digging,” Thomin said on the podcast.
The virtual tour guide told viewers he had personally viewed evidence of people disrupting the midden mounds.
“Digging into the mounds does damage and it’s illegal,” he said.
In his podcast, Thomin also provided his audience with evidence of erosion taking a toll on the beaches of Escribano Point. But Ponsell said that the placement of 33 oyster reefs put out at the point have helped curb the wave action that would have caused the erosion.
“I don’t see any major erosion on Escribano Point,” Ponsell said. “Erosion, if it was an issue, it doesn’t seem to be one now.”
Ponsell said he’s hopeful the oyster reefs will improve water quality in the area around Escribano Point, stimulate the growth of sea grass and improve the overall health of the shoreline estuary.
Vernon Compton, who served for many years as an environmental manager for the Blackwater River State Park, said he knows from experience that those charged with providing recreational opportunities in natural settings are also responsible for the well being of sensitive environmental areas.
Escribano Point is home to several threatened or endangered species of birds, animals and plants, and wetlands areas on the peninsula are among the few places anywhere where the reticulated flatwoods salamander can be found.
As the appointed steward of the Wildlife Management Area, FWC has to take into account natural stressors to the sensitive Escribano Point ecosystem such as hurricanes as well as stressors created by humans, even those as seemingly benign as driving on roads and causing erosion that can run into pristine waterways or clog wetlands.
Since FWC took over maintenance of the peninsula, Compton said, conservation groups, in conjunction with Eglin Air Force Base, The Longleaf Alliance and Georgia Southern University have embarked on an experimental program to restore reticulated flatwoods salamander-friendly ecosystems found on the peninsula.