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Restored habitat project set to open with fanfare

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image In 2007, Ecologist Tom Ries (above) pondered how to recover a long-forgotten 200-pond fish farm between the Little Manatee River and Little Cockroach Bay for habitat to support many different species of wildlife and for the enjoyment of humans. His concep

Lost River Preserve, converted from abandoned fish farm to ecological jewel for wildlife and human enjoyment with the help of federal stimulus dollars, opens here next month.

By Melody Jameson

RUSKIN — Lost River Preserve, converted from abandoned fish farm to ecological jewel for wildlife and human enjoyment with the help of federal stimulus dollars, opens here next month.

The 70-acre combination wetlands and uplands restoration project, tucked between the south shore of the Little Manatee River and Little Cockroach Bay, is to be formally dedicated Saturday, April 16, after about 21months in the making, according to Tom Ries, the ecologist who designed the project and obtained $1 million in grant monies to underwrite it.

While the preserve’s primary guests – mated ospreys and resurgent roseate spoonbills, ambling raccoons and protected indigo snakes, fish in a range of shapes, sizes and colors – already are settled in, human visitors will be marking the occasion with formal plantings, brief speeches and guided tours that day, Ries said.

In addition, volunteers with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) observing that organization’s 20th anniversary as well as federal and local officials are expected to participate.

The Lost River project, now part of Hillsborough’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), was developed from a 50-year-old, long abandoned ornamental fish farm pockmarked with more than 200 overgrown pools. In mid-2007, Ries began thinking about means to recover the property as habitat in order to share it with coastal wildlife and residents alike.

Through his not-for-profit Ecosphere Restoration Institute, the ecologist was able over time to obtain $200,000 from the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s SWIM (Surface Water Improvement and Management) program and another $65,000 from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation based in Texas. The grants relied in part on his design concepts opening up a dead end canal cut inland from Tampa Bay originally to create waterfront homesites and then linking the canal with the help of a new culvert under a bridge to two large lagoons carved from the old pools. The design also made use of the former fish farm roadway, converting it to walking trails, and former Tampa Electric Company utility poles, pressed into service as osprey high rises.

While planning to undertake the restoration over a period of years as monies became available, Ries said he also submitted the design to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not anticipating any success. After reviewing 810 project designs, NOAA chose three in Florida for stimulus money funding. The federal agency’s grant for the Lost River Preserve came to $750,000, the ecologist said.

Ries quickly found contractors eager for jobs in a battered economy, completing the project in two phases, from removing exotic nuisance plants to moving earth and shaping lagoons to replanting with native species.

Today, the preserve represents environmental science’s best efforts to “mimic Mother Nature,” he said, restoring varied habitat, recovering the area’s fishery, contributing to improved water quality and serving as a passive recreation site for fishing, birding, hiking, and wildlife tracking. The project also generated jobs and helps boost surrounding residential property values, Ries added.

Included on the NOAA invitation list for the April dedication are Florida’s senior Senator Bill Nelson, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, as well as Representatives Bill Young and Gus Bilirakis, plus NOAA Director Dr. Jane Lubehenco. Both local officials and the contractors also are expected to join the observances, Ries said.

And, some 35 to 40 bay estuary program volunteers are expected to put the finishing touches on plantings around the site, from about 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. that Saturday, as part of a TBEP workday commemorating the 20th anniversary, said Nanette Holland O’Hara, the program’s public outreach coordinator.

Brief remarks by key figures who helped bring the project to reality are expected about 11 a.m.

At noon, tours of the area are slated for those interested in a guided review of the preserve’s features, Reis added. Visitors well may view a variety of wading birds in the lagoons, see jumping fish, spot wildlife tracks, catch an osprey or two staring down at them or be checked out by an area eagle in a fly-over as they stroll trails under the canopy of trees, he said. But, he emphasized, Lost River is a preserve, “not a park with a basketball court at the end of it.”

Anyone interested in joining the planting endeavors can sign up at the TBEP website, www.TBEP.org, or by calling 727-893-2765, O’Hara said.

Lost River Preserve is reached from Canal Street, running west from Gulf City Road. The preserve, like many ELAPP sites, will be open during daylight hours. Visitors are encouraged to wear good hiking shoes and to bring drinking water along with their cameras, binoculars and wildlife identification books.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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