|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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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: