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Progress! Part Two - Devastation to Restoration
Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe, but it just wasn’t that long ago that I would travel through the South Bay area (South Eastern Shore of Tampa Bay) on US 41. This was definitely not a scenic route, the vast majority of the numerous untended land parcels along US 41 and the surrounding areas were covered in an almost impenetrable forest of Brazilian Pepper, Australian Pines and Lead Trees. These forests of exotic invasive plants aka noxious weeds were so thick virtually no animal life could survive in them. So US 41 was nothing more than a way for me to get from point “A” to point “B” (point “A” typically being my home and point “B” being Ft.Desoto).

These “forests” typically grow in “areas of disturbance”. In other words, it is unlikely you would find these exotic plants in pristine habitats. However, they grow like “weeds” in “areas of disturbance”. An “area of disturbance” is just what it sounds like; generally speaking it is an area where the soil has been turned. Whether the soil was turned by plow for farming, or turned by a bulldozer for road or building construction the results will be the same if left untended.

In Florida we have a comparatively long growing season, and most exotic species have no natural controls or competitors. The lack of controls and competitors, coupled with an extended growing season, puts the exotic invasive flora in a very strong position to easily out compete our native species.

If you read my last article, you know how I feel about unrestrained “progress”. These forests of exotic invasive flora were a direct result of unrestrained “progress” gone bad.

Of course all of these properties were at one time, pristine coastal and upland habitats. When the Tomato farms and development projects moved into the area, as well as an ill informed attempt to control mosquitoes, the writing was on the wall and the destruction began in earnest. This again was all done under the guise of “progress”.

Farms and developments eventually failed, the mosquito ditches were largely ineffective and abandoned. So in the final analysis, large tracts of land, all of them “areas of disturbance” were allowed to sit for years, untended, in effect encouraging the exotic invaders to crowd out the native flora and fauna.

As a result of the years of exotic plant growth, the South Bay area of Hillsborough County (Apollo Beach to South of Ruskin) was the very last place I would consider trying to make beautiful images of natural places or wildlife. Remember, this area was just an easy way to get to Ft.Desoto, and at Ft.Desoto I would definitely attempt to make beautiful images.

The devastation of the land was now complete; and what I mean by that is, the original pristine land was transformed in the name of so called “progress” into huge farms and development projects. Once the so called “progress” came to a screaming halt, these tracks of land were abandoned or at the very least left untended for years, making it possible for this area to became nothing more than an eye sore, void of life except for the noxious weeds left to grow unrestrained.

To say that South Bay area has seen change over the years would be an understatement! The natural areas from just north of Apollo Beach all the way to just south of Terra Ceia Bay has seen destruction in the name of so called “progress”, but on a positive note, this area has recently benefited from real progress in the form of restoration projects designed to return many of these untended land parcels back their natural state.

The US 41 route to Ft.Desoto is now out of the question, I now take I-75. With all of the wonderful restored habitats in the South Bay area, should I take the US 41 route, it’s unlikely I would ever make it to Ft.Desoto.

Until recently, the South Bay area was not even remotely considered as one of my shooting solutions, but now it is one of my very first options.

All of these land acquisition and restoration projects were a collaboration of many governmental agencies. NOAA, SWIM, SWFWMD, USFW, TBRPC, FCT and EPA just to name a few and they have all been involved in restoring these lands to a natural state.

But the cornerstone of all of this real progress is a little program called ELAPP. The Hillsborough County, Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.

Since 1987 when Hillsborough County voters first passed a .25mil tax for the purpose of buying, preserving and restoring sensitive lands, the program has acquired more than 41,300 acres at the cost of approximately $151.7 million.

Of the many (47) restored and/or preserved ELAPP lands, two of my favorites are the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve and the Wolfbranch Creek Preserve. Both preserves are managed by Richard Sullivan (he manages several others as well). Richard and his staff really care about the lands they have been entrusted with by the voters as part of the counties Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. This is the department responsible for the management of all 41,300 acres of ELAPP land.

One of the latest restoration projects to be completed is the Wolfbranch Creek Preserve. It was a truly amazing transformation. At the beginning of the restoration project it was so inundated with Brazilian Pepper, Australian Pine and Lead Tree, that the managers at Ocklawaha Farms Inc. (the company contracted to restore Wolfbranch Creek) decided it was necessary to bulldoze the majority of the site down to the bare ground and then build it back up. It was more work than perhaps other strategies; however it would prove to be the most effective strategy.

Now replacing the impenetrable forest of exotic/invasive plants, are beautiful Upland and Coastal habitats. These habitats include but are not limited to, Coastal Prairie, Salt Tern, Mangrove Swamps, Upland Pine, Oak and Palm Hammocks along with freshwater ponds and several ponds with tidal connectors to the bay.

Now that is real progress!

This season I was privileged enough to shoot fairly regularly at both Cockroach Bay Preserve and Wolfbranch Creek Preserve. Doing so enabled me to capture images of rare (for the Central Florida Area) and beautiful species, as well as many “keeper” landscape images.

Among the rare and/or just tough to see were American Avocets in full breeding colors (Cockroach) a Crested Cara Cara (Wolfbranch) Common Night Hawks, portraits, flyers and nesting (Wolfbranch) Sora (Cockroach) Black Necked Stilt, portraits, flyers, nesting and with new hatch chicks(Wolfbranch) Belted Kingfisher, full frame portraits and flyers(Wolfbranch) Scissor-tailed Flycatcher(Cockroach)

And don’t forget the usual suspects. Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets (both flavors)Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Great Blues, Tri Colors, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis, and in season, amazing ducks.

The images I captured from the South Bay area over the last 3 years were just not possible until very recently, thanks in large part to the concerned citizens who voted to tax themselves in order to preserve some of our remaining wild places, and of course, the hard working people who care for them.

Many county and state governments have programs similar to Hillsborough’s ELAPP program. I would encourage you to look into these programs for two reasons

One, if your local government does not have a program like ELAPP, find out why and how you could help get the ball rolling on putting a program together. The importance of preserving wild and natural places can not be over stated.

Remember Hillsborough County has purchased 41,300 acres over the last 17 years with a cost to the taxpayer of only .25mil on their property.

Two, if you do have a program, you will have access to beautiful lands close to your home (with fuel prices the way they are, not such a bad thing). Get to know the men and women, who manage these properties, they know were everything is! I no longer have to leave Hillsborough County for Florida Scrub Jays and Burrowing Owls!

As I said earlier, changing what was destroyed to what is restored, that is what I call real progress. Enjoy and respect our natural treasures and help the less informed to do the same.

Here is a link to detailed information on each of the Counties 47 ELAPP properties:

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