- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (AP) — To Walt Coyle, the rusted cleat where he sat with a fishing pole on the nearly empty wharf was a throne. His kingdom: Narragansett Bay, from which he has plucked scup, bluefish and fluke since the mid-1960’s.

“Fishing on Prudence Island spoils you,” Mr. Coyle said. The retired electrical engineer lives in Florida, but spends each summer and fall on Prudence. “You can come here … and practically own your own state park.”

Prudence Island has for years been isolated to all but boaters, researchers and hardy souls who weren’t scared off by the threat of Lyme disease or the lack of amenities. Now state officials and some private groups are trying to sell its natural beauty to tourists, again.

Getting visitors to the island, which is part of Portsmouth and was used for ammunition storage by the Navy during World War II, is one of several obstacles. Some of the approximately 150 year-round residents there also fear encroachment.

There’s also the public health risk posed by hundreds of island deer that carry ticks that transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses. A state-run campground was closed in 1988 because of the threat and never reopened.

Rhode Island officials are cautiously encouraging more visitors to the Prudence reserve — noting that the threat of Lyme disease is lessened by staying out of grassy and wooded areas and dressing accordingly.

The 5-square-mile island, located in the center of Narragansett Bay, was once envisioned as the centerpiece of a planned park system. Miles of winding roads paved long ago to connect the Navy ammunition bunkers can be safely used to view the island’s rare butterflies, beetles, birds and pine barrens, reserve manager Roger Greene says.

“This is really one of the state’s best-kept secrets,” said John Torgan, spokesman for the nonprofit group Save the Bay. “It’s almost always empty of people and full of wildlife, but it’s one of those ‘you can’t get there from here’ places.”

Parts of Prudence and the other islands have since become protected from development as part of the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

“We’re the Ocean State and the Narragansett Bay swoops up and carves the state in half and yet many residents … don’t have an opportunity to enjoy the bay,” Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri said.

Prudence Island has no bars, hotels or restaurants. There’s only one public restroom, at a reserve welcome center. A state-run ferry stopped operating about a decade ago, leaving a privately run ferry to provide limited service.

“There’s a diversity of fish and birds and other marine life and the varied shoreline habitat,” Mr. Torgan said. “Without proper management, crowds could [damage] these fragile areas, but there’s a fantastic educational opportunity” there.

Robert Marshall, a part-time policeman on Prudence, says some year-round residents fear any influx of visitors.

“Most would see that as driving housing prices even higher,” said Mr. Marshall, who moved his family to Prudence 13 years ago. Most islanders like things the way they are, he said.

“It’s one of the few places left where you can let kids go out and not worry about them,” he said.

Save the Bay, which conducts educational tours of the islands, is eager to help bring more people to the area, though, and, things are changing.

Signs that once pointed out trails and now covered by overgrown brush will be replaced. A booklet highlighting the island’s rare habitats and species and its history dating to Colonial times is being developed. The wharf, damaged in the past decade by fire and a boat accident, will soon be renovated.

“Every middle-school-age kid should have an opportunity to see this place,” Mr. Torgan said. “You have a national treasure in your back yard that few people even know about.”

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