In the Shadow of NASA

In the Shadow of NASA

The John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida gets a lot of attention from the media. However, most people probably are not aware that attached to the Space Center in the shadow of NASA is the Canaveral National Seashore/Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It has 69,000 acres of marsh left undeveloped and managed by the National Park Service. Researchers have identified 1045 plant species and 310 bird species in the shadow of NASA.

A dozen species of wildlife that are federally listed as endangered live there, including sea turtles, West Indian manatees, wood storks, eastern indigo snakes, and Florida scrub jays. In addition, there are the usual animals found in Florida, including land tortoises, otters, armadillos, and a wild assortment of crabs, insects, oysters, clams, and shrimp.

We had the pleasure of visiting this refuge the second week of April in 2022. It was interesting to watch hundreds of birds wading through the marsh, eating crabs and shrimp. We also saw mullet jumping as they were chased by larger fish and alligators basking in the Sun and then looking up to see a rocket being prepared to lift astronauts to the space station.

The refuge is a barrier island with sand dunes covered with various plants, including numerous palm trees and ancient oaks covered with Spanish moss and palmetto and sea oats. The National Park Service has built wooden walkways to control human traffic, allowing a natural environment to function within sight of the Kennedy Space Center in the shadow of NASA.

Just north of this area is New Smyrna Beach with its towering resorts, massive numbers of tourist attractions, and where people can drive vehicles on the beach. That area is essentially a biological desert with some gulls and pelicans and various sparrows, vultures, and blackbirds, but nothing like what we see in the wildlife refuge. The primary vegetation is a variety of human-introduced plants decorating the resorts. As you drive through the area, you see the trunks of dead palm trees everywhere but very little wildlife. Meanwhile, construction continues on more resorts and tourist complexes.

What happens when a hurricane hits this area? In the wildlife refuge, the answer is almost nothing. The vegetation holds the dunes and prevents the destruction of the plants and wildlife that depends on them. We all know about the collapse of the resort tower in this area, which tragically killed several people. No human structure is free from the elements. The human-introduced plants are generally wiped out in a hurricane and have to be replanted. Human attempts to control the area are at the mercy of natural processes. As the climate warms and water levels rise, more human-made structures will be destroyed, but what God constructed will survive. The refuge will change, and the wildlife and plant life will adapt, but it will do quite well left alone.

It was interesting to see the challenges facing the park service in the refuge. Roads don’t do well, and wooden structures have to be replaced. Meanwhile, the natural world functions smoothly and efficiently with an abundance of residential and migratory life. As humans try to control parts of nature, we constantly need to rebuild and replace. “And God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit … and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:11-12). You can see how good it is when you visit an area not corrupted by human ignorance, greed, and selfishness.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Data from National Park Foundation publication Canaveral/Merritt Island 2021.