Community of Uzita Shores donates to protected preserve

scan0002_252190620_stdBy PENNY FLETCHER

Standing anywhere on Mount Cockroach, people don’t need much imagination to picture the Timucuan Indians who lived along the Little Manatee River more than 1,000 years ago.

Archeologists have documented that these people existed and thrived from approximately 700 to 1,500 A.D. all along the river, drawing their main life resources from the water and surrounding ecosystem.

Ruskin crabber August “Gus” Munech has spent much of the last 45 years in efforts to preserve the 10-acre, 35-foot high mangrove island, as well as the land along the river and Tampa Bay, upon which many Indian relics have been found.

The mound is composed of discarded oyster, conch and clam shells, along with remnants of primitive tools, pottery and human remains.

In the mid-1980s, Munech, along with local residents Mike Peterson, Peg and Robin Knowles, Bill Casey, Mike Houghtaling of Dooley Groves, J.D. Humpherys and others, worked on a plan that later was adopted by Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation and preserved under the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), which had been championed from its beginning by former County Commissioner Jan Platt.

At that time, those closest to the project named the area Uzita Shores, after Chief Uzita of the Timucuans, and continued to bring the area to the attention of the county.

On Dec. 16, today’s commissioners voted to accept a donation of $23,119 from the Uzita Shores Community. The donation was appropriated to the Cockroach Bay Preserve Cost Center and is earmarked for pavilions, tables, and information kiosks for the top of Mount Cockroach.

Munech and the others hope Uzita Shores will become as well known for its environmental history as is Pinellas County’s Gateway Tract, the nearly 47-mile “trail” that stretches north-south along that Pinellas’ mangrove forest and is enjoyed by bikers, hikers, walkers and others who just want to enjoy the woodlands as they existed before concrete and cement.

Commissioners added new language to the conservation element of the county’s comprehensive plan that added rivers to a list of protected environmental bodies; before that it was just Tampa Bay.

“My wish is to give back to the environmental area that has meant so much to me over the last 45 years,” Munech said. “I won’t be remembered, but the community of Uzita Shores, which is new, will stay as it is, welcoming more and more people to the native scene that was, and still is.”

Park Manager Mary Barnwell said the benefit from Munech’s donation is clear.

“As with many natural resource entities, we have a very limited budget, much of which just covers our basic operational costs to maintain natural areas,” Barnwell said. “Therefore a contribution of this magnitude is very beneficial.  Cockroach Bay is unique because it offers a rich cultural history and significant ecological resources. Ice-age fossils have been recovered from the Leisey Shell Pit. There are scattered Indian mounds, and there is a plethora of marine life, ducks, songbirds and seabirds.”

She added that her director, Forest Turbiville, and supervisor Ross Dickerson were present at the commission meeting and have taken an interest in making the county’s commitment to a “Uzita Shores Conservation District.”

Munech has been involved in many other groups and won several prestigious county and state awards for his work to preserve the Little Manatee River, Tampa Bay and the natural areas from development for future generations.

Here the seagrass dances just under water that teems with marine life, the air is clear and filled with bird sounds, and the timeless feeling of nature flourishes.

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