For decades the Conservancy has identified properties of high conservation value and then acted to ensure their permanent protection. Here is just one example.
The Pine Island Sound just oozes “Old Florida.” Relatively undeveloped and easy on the eyes, this southern Gulf Coast area invites visitors to kick off their shoes and relax.
Little Pine Island, a gateway to the area, is a fully-restored, 4,700-acre island located due west of Ft. Myers. The Nature Conservancy was pleased to play a part in the preservation of this idyllic place, where today birds ride currents of tangy air and aquatic life frolics as if on holiday.
A Natural Collection
In June 1974, two brothers who wish to remain anonymous gave The Nature Conservancy’s Florida chapter 2,537 acres on Little Pine Island. The Conservancy then purchased another 1,722 adjoining acres. Ownership of the entire island was transferred a few months later to what is now the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“This was one of the first big land exchanges in this part of Florida,” said ecologist Kevin Erwin of Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist, Inc. (KLECE) who worked for the state at the time and has been overseeing the island’s restoration.
Over the years, the Conservancy protected additional parcels in this southwest Florida region – on Sanibel Island, Rookery Bay, Koreshan State Historical Park, Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve – totaling more than 23,000 acres.
Real Estate, Anyone?
In 1974 the state passed bonds to fund the Environmentally Endangered Lands program, a major new source of land acquisition funds for local governments.
A few years earlier, the Clean Water Act had passed. This halted the destruction of many mangrove and wetland systems, necessary to Florida’s thriving coastal life. Mangroves also reduce erosion and give stability to the land.
“Around that time was the first giant real estate bust,” said Dick Ludington, the Conservancy’s first full-time Florida employee and later the chapter’s first director of state lands. “For the next 10 years, we were picking up the pieces all over southwest Florida.”
Trouble in Paradise
Though permanently protected from development, Little Pine Island had serious restoration needs before life would return to its shores.
Before the Conservancy acquired the island, it had been ditched and drained to reduce mosquitoes. In an unfortunate side-effect, this altered the natural movement of water – allowing an invasion of non-native plants. Melaleuca trees, also known as the “punk tree,” began sucking the island’s wetlands and salt marshes dry.
By the mid-1990s, a dense thicket of melaleuca trees, Australian pines and Brazilian peppers blanketed more than 1,400 acres. Once a mangrove island with lush freshwater wetlands that flourished with bald eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans and otters, Little Pine was now just a thicket of invasive plants.
Mitigation to the Rescue
Around this same time, the Florida legislature authorized the creation of mitigation banks, or natural resources that have been restored, established or enhanced. Landowners who damage the environment in one area may be able to “buy credits” to help offset the damage. This encourages better connected, larger conservation landscapes.
Mitigation banker Raymond Pavelka, president of Mariner Properties Development, Inc., set up operations on Little Pine Island as one of the first mitigation banks in Florida after years of baseline evaluation, design and permitting with the regulatory agencies. They began to restore the island’s natural hydrology and remove non-native plants. Years later, the island is rejuvenated; native species have returned and wetlands have become reestablished.
Nature Conservancy restoration biologist Mike Renda led a tour of the island in spring of 2009. “We saw osprey, red-shouldered hawk and migrating warblers – plus lots of native salt marsh grasses,” Renda said. “The mitigation bank is a tool for private enterprises to both make money and do good conservation work. That’s always a cool story.”
Getting Around the Island
Today, Little Pine Island looks much like it must have appeared hundreds or thousands of years ago. Visitors can close their eyes and imagine a native Calusa community just around the bend, or a pirate ship barreling down the causeway.
John Aspiolea manages the 43,000-acre Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park, which includes Little Pine Island. With restoration nearly complete, he said that the island will be monitored for invasive plants and prescribed fire will be used to aid the regrowth of native plants. Initial prescribed fires were conducted by KLECE during the fall of 2007 and are scheduled to continue annually as conditions allow.
Little Pine Island High Marsh Trail is located on the north side of Pine Island Road (State Road 78). The two-mile trail crosses salt marsh, freshwater marsh and mangrove forests. To protect rare species and sensitive wetlands, it is open only for dry season hikes, which are guided by state park staff as conditions permit – usually December through April.
For more information, contact Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park at (941) 575 – 5861.