By LINDA CHION KENNEY
A small group of people met this month at the Bell Creek Preserve to discuss the management plan for the Golden Aster Scrub Nature Preserve in Gibsonton.
Open to the public, the May 10 meeting drew county officials and a few interested residents, including Buddy Harwell, president of Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton and vice president of the Balm Civic Association.
The meeting to address Golden Aster upkeep coincides with a public engagement survey online at HCFLGov.net/HCEngage/, where respondents talked about the need to preserve critical habitats, provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and education, connect to nature and “increase wildlife corridors before it’s too late.”
“I strongly support protection of the Golden Aster Scrub Nature Preserve for the primary purpose of preserving the unique flora and fauna of south Hillsborough County that reside there,” said a resident and Florida Audubon respondent.
“Management of the preserve must include controlling invasive species, intelligently designing prescribed fires and guarding the property from unlawful use.”
In a phone interview May 15, Harwell said it was worth his time to attend the May 10 open house meeting at the Bell Creek Nature Preserve in Riverview at 10940 McMullen Road. The preserve is 5 miles from Golden Aster in Gibsonton, at 12181 East Bay Road.
As some Balm interests fight to stay rural and some in Gibsonton await sewer upgrades to promote commercial development, environmental lands give testament to the histories of other living things and the habitats they lose and seek to redefine.
“It was definitely interesting to see some of the old photographs from the 1930’s and talking about the big line of sea grass and sand dunes” at Golden Aster, Harwell said, about what he called a May 10 meeting highlight. “That’s where the gopher tortoises like it the most, and this is where the water line was thousands of years ago, when Florid was under water.”
Moving forward, “We definitely need to protect some of our land so that we don’t concrete and asphalt everything,” Harwell said. “A lot of hogs and coyotes are starting to backtrack to where they previously lived, and people are fussing about it. One thing they don’t think about, [the animals] were here before you were. We pushed them out of their habitat, and now they’re coming back to find out what’s going on.”
And so it goes with the ongoing need for scrub management, which includes periodic prescribed or controlled burns to ensure a range of ecological benefits, including the maintenance of habitats for endangered species.
Bernie Kaiser is an environmental lands research analyst for Hillsborough County. In discussing a 10-year management plan at the May 10 meeting, Kaiser said state officials require both two-year and eight-year planning goals. “The first two years is the starting point for the next eight years,” Kasier said, as it relates to such things as getting land prepped for a prescribed burn. The plan also includes such things as monitoring plants, wildlife and animals, and holding educational classes on site.
While the Golden Aster Scrub Preserve management plan is set for an update, the public has been invited to review and comment on the management of natural habitats and recreational resources in the preserve. Hillsborough County leases and manages the roughly 1,181-acre preserve, which sits within the Bullfrog Creek Watershed. The property was purchased from the Emil C. Marquardt Jr. land trust in 1995 and, subsequently, sold to the state’s Conservation and Recreational Lands (CARL) program. In 1989, the program was replaced by Preservation 2000 and funding was increased to $3 billion for conservation land purchases. In 1998, a replacement program called Florida Forever broadened the land purchasing criteria to include historical preservation.
Upland and wetland communities in the Golden Aster preserve include scrub, scrubby flatwoods, mesic and wet flatwoods, mesic and hydric hammocks, wet prairie and depression marshes. These natural communities support a wide range of native plant and animal species. Federally listed as endangered, the Florida golden aster, as well as other imperiled plant species, such as yellow butterwort and red margin zephyr lily, are found throughout the scrub. Milkweed and nodding pinweed, endemic to Florida, have also been documented in the preserve.
Imperiled animal species found on the preserve include the eastern indigo snake, Florida scrub-jay, Southeastern American kestrel, Florida sandhill crane, several species of wading birds and the gopher tortoise. Like the nodding pinweed, the Florida scrub-jay is endemic to the Sunshine State, meaning in all the world, it only resides here.
As for recreational uses at the preserve, they’re limited to hiking on marked trails, guided tours and passive wildlife observation.
Also discussed at the May 10 meeting was that the Golden Aster preserve could be a holding area for gopher tortoises that need to be moved for construction, such as for runway growth at Tampa International Airport.
That conservation is a key concern in south Hillsborough County is to be expected as housing and commercial development continues to spread and be considered for both rural and suburban areas. Property rights are front and center in this discussion, but the need to conserve nature is also part of that.
“Our community needs [scrub] preserves that honor how beautiful Florida is,” one survey respondent said. “Indeed, we need to have areas saved where people can’t destroy it,” said another respondent. “If you can find more area to preserve, I would support [that], too.”