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Sarasota Bay Estuary Program unveils preliminary concept for improving habitat on Jim Neville Preserve

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is working on a concept to restore native habitat to two connected islands off Siesta Key on which spoil material was dumped during the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).

On April 4, Mark Alderson, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), explained the preliminary facets of the project to about 50 members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) during their regular meeting. The goal, he said, is to remove the spoil mounds and the exotic vegetation — such as Australian pines, Brazilian peppertrees and carrotwood trees — and restore the islands of the Jim Neville Marine Preserve to pristine condition.

The SBEP is looking at two potential funding sources, he pointed out: BP money provided through the RESTORE Act, which was established in the aftermath of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The earliest he felt the SBEP could secure funding would be in two years, Alderson noted; that would be if the USACE’s South District ends up being the source. “The BP money has been … very slow to come.”

The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) has indicated its willingness to match other funds the SBEP can secure for the project, he noted.

Probably by next winter, he continued, the SBEP would be ready to conduct a community charrette to gain the views of the public about the potential project. “We’re going to be looking for feedback.”

He would make certain, he added, that the SKA would have notice well in advance of the session, so any interested members could attend it. The SBEP plans to advertise the charrette widely, to encourage public participation, he said.

In explaining the concept, Alderson told the audience that the Jim Neville Preserve was donated to Sarasota County by the Palmer family. “I have talked to the [family members] about this [proposed initiative],” he continued, because the deed requires family members to give their consent to any action taken on the property. “They’re 100% in favor of [this concept].”

The Neville Preserve, he pointed out, is “not walkable. It’s not usable.” It is overrun by exotic vegetation.

Referring to the more northern spoil mound, Alderson said, “It’s not really conducive for anything to grow on, because it’s so hard.”

After the ICW was constructed, he explained, the spoil material from that project, dumped on the islands, “changed [their] ecological character …”

The initial focus of the project calls for removing enough of the mounds to take their elevation to 1 to 2 feet, Alderson said. Then the SBEP would “create birding and wildlife habitat,” as well as kayak and canoe trails. “We think [the preserve] could be a Mecca for ecotourism throughout our region.”

The SBEP has undertaken about 90 similar projects in the area, he pointed out. Showing the SKA members slides, he noted that when a project recently was underway to restore native habitat on North Lido Key, “The residents never knew it was going on, and they live right there adjacent to it.” The SBEP took care to ensure its habitat restoration area there was enclosed by mangroves, he explained.

Residents on Siesta Key who live across from the Neville Marine Preserve likewise probably would notice little about the work underway on the spoil islands, he said.

More of the details

After removing the spoil material in the Neville Preserve, Alderson continued, “We went to plant spartina. … Mangroves will naturally come in. They just need a little bit of substrate to get started.”

Within about 15 years, he said, mangrove tunnels would be common in the preserve. He added that those tunnels are very popular with tourists, who like to canoe and kayak through them.

Still, he stressed, “It’s really up to you all as to what might happen.” The SBEP has not applied yet for any permits, he pointed out. “There’s no design.

When an audience member asked whether the SBEP plans to remove all the Australian pines, Alderson replied that that is one of its goals. Those trees, he noted, “provide shade on beaches,” but the SBEP is focused on “ecological integrity” in its restoration of the Neville Marine Preserve. “If you want classic bird habitat and fish and wildlife habitat, you’d do much better with mangroves.”

(Over the years, speakers on other topics at SKA meetings have explained that Australian pines are bad for the environment, as the trees displace native species.)

One woman in the audience pointed out that she lives in a condominium that enables her to look out onto Jim Neville Preserve. “It’s teeming with fish,” she said of the waterway in that area, adding that she also has seen eagles and roseate spoonbills. Further, she told Alderson, white pelicans visit each year. “It’s already really pretty pristine,” with lots of mangroves, she said of the preserve. “It worries me that you’re going to mess up Mother Nature by bringing more people into that area.”

The county has too few places, left, the woman said, where birds can nest, and wildlife can find respite, away from humans.

“We need everybody’s input here,” Alderson responded. “We’re not going to destroy anything that’s already native out there. That’s not our concept.”

The primary focus, he stressed, would be eliminating the spoil mounds so native habitat could thrive.