- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) - It’s a five-minute paddle from the North Siesta Key Bridge to Edwards Island.

Six acres in size, the island is a prized chunk of land, boasting gradual sandy beaches in some areas, ecologically valuable mangrove stands in others and a surprisingly hilly interior.

Like the other five dozen-plus spoil islands that dot Southwest Florida’s bays, Edwards was an afterthought when it was created in the 1960s. The mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was simply to carve out the bottom of Sarasota Bay to create the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The fill, which is mostly high-quality sand, had to go somewhere.

Larry Stults of Sarasota Bay Watch has beached his small boat on the west side of the island. After pointing out what invasive Brazilian pepper, carrotwood and Australian pines look like, Stults walks up a nearby hill and waves his hands toward the interior.

“Just imagine this as a native plants version of Selby Gardens,” said Stults. “This could become a native botanical treasure.”

An early retiree, Stults has taken on what some would call Mission Impossible: get enough of a consensus from Sarasota County, nearby homeowners, boaters and environmentalists to turn at least a few of the closest spoil islands into miniature ecological gems.

They’d be replanted with native plants, providing valuable food, particularly for migrating birds on their way to and from the northeast and Mexico.

The proposal, with backing of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and other groups, is one of more than 30 being considered by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation for a $375,000 grant to help the marine environment while boosting the local economy.

The discussion of how the spoil islands could be restored to feature native plants is one of those Sarasota sagas that seems to go on forever.

There are dozens of the islands from Tampa Bay to Venice, and only a few have been restored.

Some are owned by local governments, some by the state and others by organizations such as the West Coast Inland Navigation District, which is based in Venice.

In 1978, Army Corps paid for a lengthy study on the “dredged material islands in Florida,” covering both the plants and the birds.

As recently as 2000, the Corps had agreed to put up to $5 million into the replanting of Sarasota County spoil islands.

Sarasota County government and others made their biggest push to improve the ecology of Edwards Island in 2000.

A Corps of Engineers-authorized study that year even listed all the native species that could be used, including upland trees such as Gumbo limbo, Myrtle Oak and Live Oak, Southern Red Cedar, Red bay, Sugarberry and Green Buttonwood.

“We all very naively thought this was going to be this totally great community triumph,” said Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal resources manager at the time and currently. “We thought, ‘Look at all the problems it is going to solve. Who could possibly be against that?’ “

But when the plan was presented at the Out-of-Doors Academy on Siesta Key, more than 100 residents showed up, most in opposition to changing the islands.

While various facets of the plan drew complaints, the biggest issue turned out to be changing the view. Tall Australian pines, a non-native plant, have taken hold on the spoil islands that have enough elevation to host them.

Environmentalists dislike these trees because they crowd out native trees that provide food for birds, and the pine needles emit a chemical that poisons the ground around the trees so that nothing else grows. But cutting them down would change the view from expensive waterfront homes.

“They didn’t want to look across the bay and see the other folks’ bayfront homes,” said Wreford.

The story is the same at Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, a group that is critical for getting federal funding for projects like these.

“We have already done plans for all those islands,” said program director Mark Alderson. “We have plans that have been completed for the entire necklace of islands. The only one that has been done is the bird colony island in Roberts Bay.

“The other islands they are talking about were all proposed for construction several times over the past two decades. The community was concerned about visibility. They were concerned about changing their view sheds.”

Previous proposals also raised voters’ blood pressure by suggesting that the elevation of the islands should be lowered, with the fill spread out on the floor of the bay to create more shallow-water oyster beds.

The Sarasota Bay Watch team’s plan leaves the water level and the island elevations where they are.

Eliminating most of what he calls “the earth work,” on a project like Edwards Island would sharply reduce the cost and preserve the hammock or uplands area, which the ecologists now say has value.

“If the emphasis is less on earth work, you could probably accomplish quite a bit with a million dollars,” said Wreford.

Stults wants to improve the plant life on the islands while at the same time providing better access to boaters and kayakers.

The idea of eco-tourism is gaining in the region, so taking another stab at improving the ecology of the spoil islands has a cachet that was lacking 15 years ago. Also, the Sarasota Bay Watch group has formulated a compromise that could make the homeowners happy while giving the birds a better rest stop.

The idea is, when required to reach consensus, the designers would leave the trees alone on the island’s perimeter and replant the interior.

Gradually, some of the native trees, such as the red cedars, would become big enough to serve the same view-blocking purpose that the Australian pines serve now.

At Sarasota County’s Parks and Recreation Department, this idea gets warm reception because it would spread out the growing numbers of visitors and locals who want to enjoy the bay in a natural way.

“How cool is it to have islands in the bay that you can kayak to?” asks George Tatge, the county’s manager of beaches and water access parks.

The mangrove tunnels at Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Beach, which his department developed as an amenity in the 1980s, have zoomed in popularity as kayak tours have become a popular way to enjoy nature, Tatge said. “This is what is called a soft tour. You can experience a tropical mangrove swamp and all the marine critters associated with that, but you can do it 15 minutes from your hotel in downtown Sarasota, and you are totally safe.”

But the mangrove tunnels are at the point where they are becoming too popular for their own good, he said.

“Now when you go through there you are in the beginning or the end or the middle of a long line of kayakers,” Tatge said. “We need to spread the load out among other sites. If we focus on one site too much, it will degrade that site.”

That fits nicely with the Sarasota Bay Watch team’s ideas.

“We are envisioning a necklace of islands that runs up and down the bay,” said Stults. “If we are a good model for how to do this, Manatee County could do theirs and Charlotte Harbor could do theirs. We would have an Appalachian Trail on the water.”

To start, Sarasota Bay Watch has identified seven islands that would form its necklace.

Edwards, Little Edwards and Skiers islands are all just south of the North Siesta Key bridge, meaning they are readily accessible from the county’s newly renovated Bay Island Park.

Otter Key is very close to the Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key and would be accessible from there. Sister Keys and Whale Key are farther up the coast, off Longboat Key.

These six would tie in with the county’s ongoing work at Jim Neville Marine Preserve, accessible from Turtle Beach.

Neville, said Stults, “is separate, but it would be part of the chain.”

Figuring a million dollars per island plus inflation, and allowing a year to a year and a half per island to get the job done, Sarasota Bay Watch is probably looking at a ten year project that would cost $7 million to $10 million.

___

Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com

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