A former symbol of a potential war with the Soviet Union has been transformed into a peaceful refuge for threatened species.
The Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo is now home to countless birds, alligators, and small mammals. But during the Cold War, the land was dedicated to a much bleaker purpose– a launchpad for nuclear missiles capable of killing thousands.
Fortunately, nothing came of the United States decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union, and the 6,7000-square-foot base, known as B Battery, has been closed for over 30 years now. The military stronghold’s concrete bunkers and guardhouses have now fallen into disrepair, and nature is slowly reclaiming the landscape.
Biologists are more than happy to let nature run its course, and have now devoted the site to being a full-time refuge for endangered species, including the Key Largo woodrat, Key Largo cotton mouse, and American crocodile.
The abandoned base lends an eerie aura to the refuge. Native plant life has begun to creep in amongst the empy dog kennels and erase the Army-built road. Among the signs of the land’s fading history are those of new life. Where a missile warehouse used to stand, there are now torchwood plants, which will support the endangered Schaus swallowtail butterly.
It’s an ironic place for an endangered wildlife refuge. Representing a time when humanity often seemed on the brink of extinction, the base is now another species’ second chance at life.
“It’s a surreal moment when you realize you’re planting these plants for an endangered species on what used to be a nuclear site,” Dixon said.
To restore the land to its natural glory, workers have dismantled a missile assembly building, generator sheds, and water tanks. But there is still plenty left to be done, which will be dependent on available funding.
“We’re trying to restore this to tropical hardwood hammock, which benefits all the species here in Key Largo,” said Jeremy Dixon, the refuge’s manager “This has been a slow work in progress. It’s amazing how it’s recovered on its own. Sometimes it needs some help, though.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says demolishing the military structures is crucial to ensure a safe haven for endangered species. The ruins can provide a home for black rats and Burmese pythons, invasive species which could easily wipe out native wildlife. Workers hope to remove B Battery’s old sewage treatment plant next, saying the open water tanks could also be dangerous to wildlife.
But other structures will likely be there for good. Battery B’s robust bunkers, for example, were built to resist a nuclear missile strike, and they’re unlikely to be removed by man or nature anytime soon.
“We don’t think this is ever going to be completely gone,” Dixon said. “It’s always going to be in the shadow of what used to be here.”
All images via Sun Sentinel