Restoring a Native Paradise

A friend recently helped to rescue a juvenile bald eagle here on the Island the other day and that got me thinking about birds and bird-y places. I think one of the best places we have for bird watching is Little Pine Island (the stretch of land between Matlacha and the Center on the north and south sides of Pine Island Road) but that hasn’t always been the case.

Back in the 1950s, when Little Pine Island was still in private hands, the owner 2014-07-23 20.19.57dug ditches and drained a lot of the wetlands there to control the mosquitos. With the ground and surface water gone, native vegetation essentially dried up with it. That left room for exotic bad guys — melaleuca, Brazilian peppers and Australian pine — to move in and take over. When those plants moved in, our native animals moved out.

When I came here in the 1970s, there were a few mangroves on the fringes, but Little Pine Island was essentially a forest of Australian pine and melaleucas with not much wildlife there at all.

That started to change in 1974 when two anonymous donors gave The Nature Conservancy’s Florida chapter a little over 2,500 acres of land there. The Conservancy purchased 1,722 adjoining acres and a few months later, the entire island — 4,800 acres — was transferred to state ownership. Around that same time, the federal Clean Water Act was passed, halting the destruction of wetlands and mangrove habitats — both crucial Florida ecosystems.

While the land was protected from development, it remained a thicket of invasive plants that did not provide habitat for our native species. While there were some efforts over the years to try to get the invasives under control, it was sort of like squishing a mosquito in the Everglades — you kill one and there are a million more waiting to take its place. Getting rid of the invasives was like that — a daunting task, to say the least.

But a couple of things happened in the 1990s that helped bring Little Pine Island back to the native state its in today.

First, Florida came up with a new scheme that allowed developers to destroy some mangrove or wetland habitat if they met one of four conditions: restore wetlands on a different part of the site they were developing; restore or create wetlands at another site; donate wetlands to the state or buy credits at a mitigation bank, a degraded wetland that was being restored by someone else.

Second, Mariner Properties wanted to begin developing South Seas Plantation on Captiva. Doing so would mean that they needed to undertake a whole lot of restoration. In 1996, Florida gave Mariner permission to begin restoration of Little Pine Island and to develop it as a mitigation bank that other developers could also use their credits to help restore. It was one of the first mitigation banks in the state.

I still have a vivid memory of seeing a multitude of egrets return to the site as soon as Mariner started clearing out the exotics and filling in more than seven miles of drainage ditches.

Bill Lester, a St. James City resident who’s been leading walking tours of the Island’s High Marsh Trail for years, has a list of about 80 native plant species that now live on the Island. And with those native plants have come the native animals.

According to Kevin Erwin, the Consulting Ecologist on the site who led its restoration, wildlife monitoring has documented at least:

  • 11 species of mammals
  • 108 bird species, including 51 wetland-dependent bird species
  • 17 species of native reptiles
  • Seven species of native amphibians
  • 13 species of native fish
  • And approximately 95 aquatic macro-invertebrate species

Compare that to Erwin’s pre-restoration assessment, which found only four mammal species, 43 bird species (including 20 wetland-dependent bird species) and five native reptiles.

And bringing back this slice of native Pine Island didn’t cost taxpayers a dime. All restoration, maintenance and monitoring costs are paid for by Mariner; 7 percent of the revenue generated from the sale of mitigation credits was returned to Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park (which is the official owner of Little Pine Island). Another 5 percent, about $1.5 million, was also set aside in a trust fund for the perpetual maintenance and monitoring of the site.

Maybe one day, we’ll have a bike path that connects Little Pine Island to Matlacha and the Center (see my last column for more information on that). Until then, I’d encourage you to take a tour of your own along the two-mile trail.