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Many factors combine to create a diamond from the rough

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By MELODY JAMESON
mj@observernews.net

RUSKIN – Thanks to federal stimulus dollars, a highly competitive design, the good timing of a bad market and multiple agency cooperation, a South County ecological gem is being polished to sun-bright shine here.

aerial
Melody Jameson photos
Ecologist Tom Ries, who has shepherded the Lost River habitat restoration since its inception, uses an aerial graphic to demonstrate features in the 78-acre preserve. Ries’ not-for-profit Ecosphere Restoration Institute obtained more than $1 million in grants to underwrite the project.

And, though still under construction, not yet open for public enjoyment, the Lost River Preserve Habitat Restoration Project already is being homesteaded, as intended, by ospreys and spoonbills, raccoons and reptiles, and marine life from tiny to frying size.

The two-phase, 78-acre preserve, featuring sun-dappled walking trails under arching tree canopies meandering around free-flowing salt and fresh water lagoons, is tucked between the Little Manatee River’s south shore and Little Cockroach Bay. It probably will be accessed only from Canal Street, west and north of Gulf City Road, according to Forest Turbiville, environmental manager in Hillsborough County’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. Hillsborough’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP) accepted most of the site as a donation and will assume maintenance responsibilities when the project is completed.

Lost River Preserve mostly was a 50-year-old, long abandoned ornamental fish farm pockmarked with more than 200 overgrown pools when Tom Ries, an ecologist who operates the not-for-profit Ecosphere Restoration Institute, Inc., and Turbiville began informally tossing around design ideas in mid-2007.

ELAPP had added the property to its conserved lands list but had no money for any improvements; no funds to restore the habitat properly, to enhance the adjacent natural fishery, to create passive recreation.

canal-street
It was the single most costly element in the Lost River Preserve project, but this culvert under Canal Street connected a former dead end canal cut in from Tampa Bay with new salt and freshwater lagoons critical to the habitat restoration.

Nonetheless, Ries came up with a plan that essentially opened up a dead end canal cut inland from Tampa Bay — originally to create waterfront residential home sites — and then linked the canal to two large, irregularly-shaped lagoons dug out among the old pools. The watery links, facilitated by a substantial new culvert under Canal Street, would produce both a salt water environment and a fresh water setting. The design also made use of old interior fish farm roadway, converting it to trails. The plan even converted a couple of still- sturdy, former Tampa Electric Company utility poles to osprey high rises with the help of new platforms.

It all looked good on paper, but in the halls of a financially strapped Hillsborough County government looking at massive personnel layoffs and staff furlough days, there was no funding to be found. And implementing the design would not be a small-ticket job, Ries figured. Cutting the culvert in under Canal Street, clearing the heavy overgrowth of nuisance exotics like Brazilian Pepper and Melaleuca, combining the old ponds with big digs all would run into considerable sums, he calculated.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s SWIM (Surface Water Improvement and Management) program saw merit in the proposed plan and was willing to kick in $200,000. The Gulf of Mexico Foundation, headquartered in Texas, was in for $65,000. Still significantly shy of the total needed, Ries was ready to make a start on the preserve with the combined quarter million dollars, seeing completion maybe five years ahead, he told The Observer recently.

Then, without any anticipation of success, he also tossed the design into a pot of such plans being considered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), applying through his non-profit for backing with federal stimulus money. More than 810 projects were reviewed by NOAA, with three Florida plans earmarked for funding, Ries said. Two of them are on the east coast and one located on the central Gulf Coast – a multi-faceted, multi-benefit design dubbed the Lost River Preserve. The NOAA grant totaled $750,000.

curlew
A little undisturbed grooming, a tasty little lunch...what more could Roseate Spoonbills and a companionable Curlew ask for on a sunny summer afternoon? The birds are among an increasing volume of wildlife settling in near the fresh and salt water lagoons created as part of the Lost River restoration project.

With more than $1 million made available, Reis quickly swung into action on the preserve, taking bids for the major work components – and got another surprise. In a depressed economy, with far fewer jobs than contractors to do them, original cost estimates were radically reduced – in some instances cut in half, the ecologist said. The $1 million could be stretched further than anyone had imagined.

Consequently, Lost River Preserve’s 43-acre Phase I, currently being settled by numerous wildlife families, is nearing completion. The exotic plants are gone and osprey circle over a new nest , a killdeer parent marshals her young on a lagoon shoreline that wanders southward, wading shore birds pursue their individual interests side by side in the newly created estuarine marsh. The last big job in Phase I is setting native plants across the acreage, joining the recently-planted 330 Sabal Palms – Florida’s state tree that’s expected to fill out the canopy. The Phase I work could be wrapped up in September, Ries said.

Meanwhile, permitting is underway for two aspects of Phase II, a 26-acre section destined to become both wetland and upland environments, plus another nine acres requiring little work but positively affected by the planned improvements. Phase II could be finished by the end of the year, the ecologist estimated. It was the size of the NOAA grant that made Phase II possible, he added.    

Lost River Preserve represents environmental science’s best efforts to “mimic Mother Nature” as closely as possible, restoring habitat even to the “frog ponds” or surface depressions that fill with water and attract the amphibians during the rainy season but later dry up, Ries noted. It also has generated jobs that otherwise would not have existed, should elevate property values in the surrounding area, will contribute to better water quality, and can serve as a passive recreation site offering fishing, birding, hiking, he added. Perhaps even more importantly, the new sheltering lagoons are expected to considerably recover and support the area’s fishery.

It is this latter consideration that Gus Muench, Hillsborough County native and a lifelong fisherman who lives in the vicinity, pointed to as he praised the project. This nursery effect, environments where young marine life can flourish and grow, nourished by the natural detritus, is essential to maintaining a healthy fishery, he asserted. “It’s a great project,” he added, “a really worthwhile project.”

Neither Ries nor Turbiville could pinpoint a specific opening date for the Last River Preserve. But, both indicated an opening observance is a distinct possibility. They really won’t mind showing off the region’s newest jewel.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson

Ries
What once was a farm road through hundreds of ornamental fish ponds now is a sun dappled walking trail in the new Lost River Preserve habitat restoration project between the Little Manatee and Little Cockroach Bay. Ecologist Tom Ries, designer and project manager, stops to enjoy his handiwork.

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