Sea-level rise presents an imminent threat to freshwater-dependent ecosystems on small oceanic islands, which often harbor rare and endemic taxa. Conservation of these assemblages is complicated by feedbacks between sea level and recurring pulse disturbances (eg hurricanes, fire). Once sea level reaches a critical level, the transition from a landscape characterized by mesophytic upland forests and freshwater wetlands to one dominated by mangroves can occur suddenly, following a single storm-surge event. We document such a trajectory, unfolding today in the Florida Keys. With sea level projected to rise substantially during the next century, ex-situ actions may be needed to conserve individual species of special concern. However, within existing public conservation units, managers have a responsibility to conserve extant biodiversity. We propose a strategy that combines the identification and intensive management of the most defensible core sites within a broader reserve system, in which refugia for biota facing local extirpation may be sought.