NPS Gulf Islands National Seashore - Fort Pickens Ferry System

In order to maintain cost-effective, sustainable visitor access to the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GUIS), the National Park Service (NPS) proposed the development of passenger ferry service from Pensacola, Florida, to Fort Pickens. Santa Rosa Island, the site of Fort Pickens and part of GUIS, is susceptible to coastal storms and erosion. The Fort Pickens Road within GUIS is frequently damaged by storms, including hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. The transportation system in the Fort Pickens area is particularly vulnerable to disruptions caused by these impacts. Ferry service was developed to improve visitor access and provide transportation to Fort Pickens if vehicle access is disrupted.

Although the documents associated with the development of the ferry service do not include reference to climate change, the impacts of climate change will present challenges for managers of national parks. GUIS is experiencing warming that will likely affect all aspects of park management. In addition to warming, GUIS is vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise. Forty-two percent of the mapped shoreline was classified as being at very high or high vulnerability to future sea-level rise in a 2003 USGS study. GUIS facilities are already impacted by coastal storms. Damage from hurricanes in 2004-2005 resulted in the closure of Fort Pickens Road for nearly five years. Even after reconstruction, the road was closed 10-12 times per year due to flooding. The 2014 General Management Plan (GMP) for GUIS acknowledges the vulnerability of GUIS to climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise, increased erosion and flooding, and identifies management strategies to help address climate change impacts. The GMP states that NPS will evaluate proposed facility investments in light of climate change projections and develop adaptation strategies (2014 GMP at 153). It points to enhanced use of alternative transportation as an adaptation and sustainability strategy that is supported by the new GMP, and it calls for water access to the Fort Pickens Area. NPS also conducted an assessment estimating the exposure of all its coastal parks’ assets to 1-meter of sea-level rise, finding that 81 percent of its assets at GUIS have a high exposure to future sea-level rise.

The National Park Service is taking a multifaceted approach to reducing the vulnerability of GUIS transportation infrastructure to the impacts of coastal storms. The NPS completed environmental review of facilities needed to support the Fort Pickens Ferry System, finding no significant impact of constructing these facilities and providing shuttle service in the Fort Pickens Area. A ferry pier was built and the ferry system began service in June 2018. In addition, the Federal Highway Administration funded a project to realign a 1.5-mile section of Fort Pickens Road between Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens to reduce its vulnerability to coastal storms. That project moved the existing road inland (northward) behind protective dunes to reduce the effects of erosion and flooding.

The Fort Pickens Ferry System provides an example of how the effects of coastal flooding, erosion, and sea-level rise could be addressed through the development of alternative transportation networks.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on March 27, 2020.


Publication Date: September 2015

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