island with lots of green palm trees and white sand seen from above with pale green water surrounding
AERIAL: Ballast Key seen from above © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, All Rights Reserved

Magazine Articles

Key to the Refuge

A hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt created it, the Key West National Wildlife Refuge is complete

Fall 2019

Jenny Rogers.
Jenny Rogers Senior Editor & Writer, Nature Conservancy magazine


Since its founding in 1908, the Key West National Wildlife Refuge in Florida has protected a vast chain of remote islands—all except for one small key. This year that 14-acre island, long known as Ballast Key, joined the wildlife refuge after owner David Wolkowsky donated it to TNC for that purpose.

Wolkowsky, sometimes called “Mr. Key West” for his role in preserving historic buildings in the South Florida town and driving much of the early tourism in the area, bought the island from the Navy in 1973. He built a house, a guest house and a dock on the key. In the following decades, he hosted numerous writers, artists and generally colorful characters there including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Margaret Thatcher—reportedly often serving his guests hot dogs and wine.    


black and white image of stylish man with dog walking on sand away from a helicopter
Mr. Key West David Wolkowsky and his dog land by helicopter on Ballast, soon-to-be Wolkowsky, Key. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, All Rights Reserved

Ballast will be renamed after its longtime owner, says Chris Bergh, a program manager for TNC in South Florida. Bergh met with Wolkowsky several times before his death to discuss how he wanted the island to be preserved. “He was really instrumental in showing that people shouldn't knock down old buildings,” Bergh says of Wolkowsky's philanthropy. “No one had thought of him as an environmentalist [before], but the donation of the island proves otherwise.” 

picture of a map of Key West Harbor and surrounding water and islands with keys highlighted yellow
Island Life A map shows the locations of refuge keys and the town of Key West (far right). Ballast Key is the third key in yellow from the left. © Office of Coast Survey/National Ocean Services/NOAA
A large turtle swims alone through turquoise water with rocks shown underneath
Marine Research Ballast Key will become a research station for scientists studying animals like green sea turtles and nurse sharks. © Rachel Hancock Davis

The key will become a research station owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service but managed by TNC. “The Keys are pretty well-studied from an environmental perspective,” says Bergh. “But the specific area where Ballast Key is located is the gap in the research.”

Studies will likely focus on coral reefs, sharks and nesting sea turtles. The buildings that once hosted creative luminaries will now host scientists researching the marine world surrounding the key. 

Bergh, who grew up in Key West and has spent time among the other islands in the refuge, says Ballast Key has mangrove swamps, beaches, dunes and a variety of coastal vegetation. “As you’re sitting in the main house, you’re looking down at the beach and the water and the sea and you can see tarpon and sea turtles and all sorts of birds,” he says. “I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”  

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Jenny Rogers.

Jenny Rogers is a writer and editor for Nature Conservancy magazine, covering books, science and conservation.