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Escambia Bay park built on historical site receives $800,000 "living shoreline" grant

Santa Rosa County has received an $800,000 grant to build a “Living Shoreline” and protect historical sites at Floridatown Park along Escambia Bay in Pace.

This grant was a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent announcement of $404 million allocated for 113 environmental resilience projects throughout the state of Florida. Protecting Floridatown Park is about more than just protecting the natural shoreline; it's about preserving the history and legacy of the Mvskoke (Muscogee) or Creek Native Americans.

“We are sitting on an ancient Native American midden, which was part of an established Native American colony," said Shelley Alexander, Santa Rosa County environmental programs coordinator, who is the lead scientist and coordinator of the project.

The midden is a mound or wall made of oyster shells.

“We worked with the University of West Florida Department of historical resources. They did what's called ground-penetrating radar; they came out here and mapped that there's a midden made of oyster shells. There was a big fishing community, so that's why we have to protect it because erosion is starting to impede on this historical resource we are on.”

Chief Sky Horse of the Santa Rosa Creek tribe points out that “protection” of the midden is only a response to living in disharmony with the environment.

“We shouldn’t have to be protecting sites like these," he said. "When you have respect for the earth, the features upon it, the animals, the fish, for the winged things, and for our two-legged relatives, protection isn’t something you have to be concerned with. We do not have that respect.”

Extreme-weather events, such as hurricanes, have been exacerbated by climate change, and have contributed to the erosion of many Florida coastlines, including the estuary coastline of the Floridatown Park, the chief said. These extreme-weather events paired with the urban development of the shoreline has led to the erosion seen today.

“We are appreciative that the project that is to protect the shoreline is underway,” Sky Horse said. “There is an understanding Native Americans or indigenous people have which is a connection with the Earth. When you lose that connection, bad things happen and it becomes unbalanced. ”

A living shoreline attempts to create a resilient coast using natural, low-impact materials, native plants, and native soil. Alexander points out seawalls made from concrete or steel, which have been historically used to protect shores, tend to break during storms and worsen erosion.

Alexander is hopeful that this model of shoreline restoration becomes the new standard.

“We are using the living shoreline approach which is building an offshore breakwater similar to how a coral reef or barrier reef protects the mainland, as a way of bringing back a nature-based solution.”

Floridatown Park Living Shoreline
Floridatown Park Living Shoreline

“We will be building a marsh sill; you can think of it like a window sill, which will be an extension of the shore that would be marsh plants like spartina," he added. "We will also be bringing in a limestone rock that borders the sill, and that would also be bringing in native soil. We will also have a beach renourishment to address coastal access for the public who likes to come to the shore and watch the sunset.”

The living shoreline also will help to support the local fishing industry by providing critical habitat through native plants and rocks.

“We have the saltmarsh ecosystem out here, what we call an estuary — where the river meets the salt," said Alexander. "We have mullet, fish, shrimp that are in this environment, and it also is the nursing grounds for all of those species.”

The park also has historical ties to the 19th century, when it was a bustling transportation hub.

Floridatown Hotel

“Historically (the park) has been a landing, a ferry landing," Alexander said. "This is how people commute and go across, going to ferry passes across the way. There was also a hotel that was here from the 1800s to the 1920s. Andrew Jackson was known to travel on his big white steed horse, and this is where he traversed as well throughout the South.”

Floridatown Park may be an unassuming modern park at first glance, but the site has hosted an array of people and cultures throughout history. Alexander says it is worth protecting so that future generations may enjoy it too.

“It's a very well-loved and beloved park by the community because of its access to our water resources and so with the living shoreline we will be bringing back the shoreline that has lost its stability.”

For Chief Sky Horse, the site is more than just a park. It is a direct connection to his ancestors.

“The ancestors are with us. Everyone's ancestors are with them, carried in our blood and in our DNA. They speak to us if we can quiet the chatter of our minds long enough to listen. When you move into a place that you know was a village, ceremonial grounds, or something of that nature, and become quiet you can feel the warmth and the embracing of the ancestors. They went through terrible trials and tribulations. Their dream was that one day their descendants would have a better life. We are what they dreamed. We are still here.”