Photo of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Florida
The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.  (Jim Johnston, courtesy Laxahatchee River Historical 
Society)

The NLCS Extends to the Subtropics

By Bruce Dawson

On May 8, 2008, Public Law 110-229 designated south Florida’s Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area (ONA) as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS).  Of the nearly 900 units currently within the NLCS, this ONA is the first unit east of the Mississippi River and certainly the first to manage habitat for the West Indian manatee, which is listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  Designation of this “island of green” in heavily urbanized Palm Beach County is significant—it extends the NLCS from the Pacific to the Atlantic, making it a truly national system.

The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse ONA is home to a remarkable array of natural and cultural resources not typically found on BLM-managed public lands.  It is one of the rare geographic points on the planet where these two sets of resource values intersect in such striking fashion.  For example, this 120-acre site provides habitat for 25 special status species (including four on the federal endangered species list) and yet also has cultural resource values so rich that 5,000 years of human occupation has been documented. 

There are few places where history and the natural environment have so perfectly converged.  The abundant natural resources, such as fresh water, rich fisheries, and wildlife, lured Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 to take respite at Jupiter Inlet for several days.  The bluff at the confluence on the Loxahatchee and Indian Rivers attracted indigenous people for thousands of years and provided the optimal location to construct a lighthouse in 1860 to safely guide ships past the treacherous reefs and sandbars off of Jupiter Inlet.  The Indian River, with its meandering mangrove islands, played a key role in concealing blockade runners during the Civil War.  Today, the same Indian River, which graces the eastern border of the ONA, is home to one of the richest and most biologically diverse estuaries in North America.

The story of the Jupiter Inlet ONA is truly a BLM story.  The lighthouse sits on land originally withdrawn from the public domain and transferred to the Lighthouse Service (which later became part of the U.S. Coast Guard) through an 1854 Executive order by President Franklin Pierce.  Five years later, in December 1859, two schooners sailed from Philadelphia to the vast wilderness of south Florida on a mission to build the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.  The task was completed in a remarkable 5 months—less than a year before the start of the Civil War.

Nearly a century and a half later, beginning in the late 1990s (and continuing today), the U.S. Coast Guard began returning land it no longer needed to the public domain.  The return of the Jupiter Inlet area to the public domain inspired grassroots interest in conserving and managing its special values.  Jupiter Inlet was designated an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC) in the BLM’s Florida resource management plan (RMP), and a unique partnership of federal, county, municipal, and nongovernmental entities known as the Jupiter Inlet Working Group, led by the BLM, was formed.  The working group collaborated to strike a balance on a wide range of issues at the site, ranging from public access to preservation of imperiled habitat and from recreational opportunities to protection of the sacred trust of the people who came before us.

With BLM’s Yaquina Head ONA in Oregon as a prototype, local communities began working with their congressional delegations and BLM’s Southeastern States Field Office (then the Jackson Field Office) to pursue an NLCS designation.  It literally did take a village (and a town).  The Village of Tequesta and the Town of Jupiter, as well as the Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners and the Loxahatchee River Historical Society, passed resolutions in support of the NLCS concept for the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse site.  In fact, the mayor of Jupiter testified before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands in support of the proposed legislation.  In April 2008, the group’s efforts were rewarded—they received the Secretary of the Interior’s Cooperative Conservation Award, and the 110th Congress passed legislation to establish the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse ONA as a part of the NLCS.

The Jupiter Inlet acreage has come full circle, from being withdrawn from the public domain for lighthouse purposes in the mid-19th century to once again becoming public land as part of the NLCS in the beginning of the 21st century, allowing the BLM to “protect, conserve, and enhance” this treasured landscape and its myriad values.

Bruce Dawson began his BLM career as a range conservationist in the Ukiah District in California in 1979.  He has held several positions in the Washington Office, serving on the rangeland resources and budget staffs and as the chief of BLM’s wild horse and burro program.  He is currently the field manager for the Southeastern States Field Office.