Titusville Proud To Be Gateway To Nature and Space
By Kathleen Burson and Paul MacInnis // August 31, 2014
“A threat to Shiloh can have impacts throughout the wildlife refuge and the overall Indian River Lagoon system…the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge needs more strongly defined, permanent protections.”
BREVARD COUNTY • TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA – Looking across the Indian River Lagoon from Titusville, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) dominates the horizon.
Built 50 years ago, the monolithic structure has long been a symbol of industry, innovation and prosperity. With the 2011 completion of the Space Shuttle program, the VAB feels more remote.
Yet, despite the job losses, Titusville is strong and burgeoning with optimism.
Scanning the horizon north and south of the VAB, less visible launch structures come to view along with an endless ribbon of olive green between blue sky and Indian River Lagoon – vast conservation lands known as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (U.S. Fish).
This view of nature and space is treasured in north Brevard County. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge itself is an eco-industry as long-standing as the space center and provides an under-appreciated diversity to Titusville’s economy.
It is now under siege, in the name of luring future commercial space launch industry to Florida, causing many of us to step back and count our eco-blessings.
The target of this threat is 12 miles north of Kennedy Space Center (KSC), at the heart of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, an area known as “Shiloh,” uplands of distinguished historical and archaeological interest. The Timucua Indians occupied this area dating back to 800-900 AD.
In the 1760’s, the Elliott Plantation was established here, the southernmost English plantation in North America. Archaeological work at Elliott’s Plantation sites has revealed one of the earliest accounts of African-American occupation in this area.
“Shiloh” was a trade center for citrus from the 1880’s. The Shiloh community included the Shiloh Fruit Packing Company, a school, church, store, and post office. The area today is a rare “dark sky” site used by astronomers.
Shiloh sits just inside Brevard County, close to the Volusia County line. It is bordered on the east by the Mosquito Lagoon and the Canaveral National Seashore (Playalinda Beach) and on the west by the Shiloh Marsh and Indian River Lagoon .
Titusville is the western access, via the Max Brewer Causeway, to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and to KSC. Titusville is proud to be the “Gateway to Nature and Space.”
A threat to Shiloh can have impacts throughout the wildlife refuge and the overall Indian River Lagoon system. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Playalinda Beach have a rich existence as a destination for duck hunting, angling, hiking, kayaking, birding and beach-going.
The 24 miles of protected seashore hosts 12,000 Sea Turtle nests each year.
North America’s most diverse estuary with more than 4,300 species of plants and animals, including 35 that are listed as threatened or endangered, the Indian River Lagoon also serves as a spawning and nursery ground for the Green Sea Turtle and many different species of oceanic and lagoon fish and shellfish.
The Indian River Lagoon system also has one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere in North America. One of few remaining habitats of the federally-listed “threatened” Florida Scrub Jay is adjacent to Shiloh.
This is sensitive habitat rarely afforded the protections of a wildlife refuge. The MINWR is the migratory destination of the American Bald Eagle, White Pelican (wingspan just inches shorter of the California Condor), the American Kestrel Falcon known as “the colorful little hunter,” and numerous waterfowl.
Statistics count close to two million visitors to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Playalinda Beach per year since the 1980s. The area has gained more worldwide appreciation through Titusville’s “Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival,” which grows in popularity each year due to the stability of the federally protected Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge lands.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge alone generated more than $60.4 million in economic benefit for the counties of Brevard, Orange and Volusia in fiscal year 2011. The current annual economic value of the overall Indian River Lagoon system is $3.7 billion, annually supporting 15,000 jobs and providing recreational opportunities for 11 million people.
Frustratingly, the recreational, ecological, historic and economic values of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Indian River Lagoon system have been threatened too many times, as Shiloh uplands have repeatedly been coveted as a site for expansion of space launch facilities.
LAUNCH FAILURE COULD BE CATASTROPHIC
Shiloh has now, again, come into the sights of space hunters. Citing excessively cumbersome KSC and CCAFS (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station) scheduling and security restrictions, Space Florida, an Independent Special District of the State of Florida, has targeted Shiloh, to entice commercial space companies to choose Florida for their launch operations.
To support a Shiloh launch facility, the existing infrastructure at KSC and CCAFS, will need replication within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: roadways, emergency services, utilities, lighting, fire suppression facilities, storage of explosives and toxic fuels; thus, the area of construction impact at Shiloh will be greater than just the immediate launch facilities.
And unlike the launch sites within KSC and CCAFS, which are located as easterly and close to the ocean as possible, Shiloh is dangerously close to the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoons. A launch failure could be catastrophic to the overall Indian River Lagoon system.
Archaeologists have concerns about both the construction and launch impacts to the historic structures within the Shiloh area.
Space Florida and other advocates of Shiloh as a commercial launch facility, refer to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge as “surplus” NASA land, connoting that it is set aside temporarily until needed for space center expansion.
U.S. Fish along with Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge users disagree with this, stating the lands and waters merit permanent protections. NASA’s 2014 Twenty-Year Master Plan designates the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge as environmentally protected and as a buffer zone for KSC.
After two Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) public scoping meetings regarding proposed Shiloh launch facilities, 4,340 comments were received. Of these, 4,181 favor continued environmental protections of all of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and keeping government/commercial space programs, with their current balance of launch facilities, within KSC and CCAFS boundaries.
Despite the jurisdictional stumbling blocks within the space center boundaries, NASA has given commercial launch rights at Shuttle Launch Pad 39A at KSC to the commercial launch giant, Space X.
Space X also has launch rights at CCAFS Pad 40 and is completing government contract certifications with continued successful launches from CCAFS.
The recent decision of Space X to develop a commercial launch facility at Brownsville, Texas is perceived as doom and gloom for Titusville; however, Space X and other commercial space operations will still become a strong force for economic development here.
A recent newspaper article cited both Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep Bill Posey as pushing for this, by strongly advocating for better relations within the KSC and CCAFS boundaries.
Although we fully support Space Florida’s drive to lure more commercial space business to Florida, we would like to see them shift their sight, away from Shiloh, refocusing their crosshairs upon fostering workable relations in sharing, re-appropriating and refurbishing a portion of existing government launch facilities to commercial entities; putting the space hunting within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to rest. And the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge needs more strongly defined, permanent protections.
Fortunately, NASA is standing strong with U.S. Fish; however, if NASA were to have a change of heart, we could lose this treasured resource.
There is much potential for Titusville to further capitalize on the eco-tourism of the overall Indian River Lagoon system. The visitor counts to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Playalinda Beach have been under-targeted by local business.
Titusville history is at a turning point, realizing our outstanding quality of life and economic assets.
After years of dependence upon the rise and fall of the KSC workforce, the end of the Space Shuttle program has set Titusville upon an aggressive marketing campaign seeking economic diversity, targeting a variety of industries, regionally, nationally and internationally.
We will be smart to continue to stand united for our unique economic, environmental and quality of life interests in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kathleen Burson is a member of the Titusville City Council, Seat 1, and a 22-year resident of the city. Burson is a landscape architect and business owner, and says Titusville is blessed with an amazing quality of life and environmental beauty, and she is committed to Titusville’s beautiful and industrious future.
Long time Titusville resident Paul MacInnis is the father of two wonderful daughters, Anna and Lily. He is an award winning outdoor writer who serves on the board of directors for Anglers for Conservation and the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.