This article, republished from our Summer 2016 Newsletter, describes in detail the habitat restoration project at Wildflower.
Wildflower Preserve Habitat Restoration
Phase 1: Invasive Species Removal
In June, Lemon Bay Conservancy reached a major milestone with the start of construction activities on our habitat restoration project at Wildflower Preserve. The initial phase of the project, invasive species removal, is now underway.
The equipment being used to clear dense areas of invasive Brazilian Pepper is a specialized piece of heavy machinery called a Hydro Ax. It is equipped with a forestry mulching mowing head. With an experienced operator, the Hydro Ax can clear up to two acres of pepper in a single day’s operation, while still leaving native trees in the same area standing. (To see a video of the Hydro Ax at work, visit our LBC website at www.lemonbayconservancy.org.)
In addition to the Hydro Ax, the contractors are using chain saws to remove invasive growth close to existing native plants and to fell larger invasive trees, including Australian Pines and Melaleuca. Periodically, through the next year, licensed professionals will also be onsite using herbicide applications to limit re-growth of undesirable species.
While it can seem sad and a bit shocking to see the removal of large areas of growing vegetation, clearing invasive species is a necessary first step in preparing the land for replanting with native trees and shrubs.
For safety reasons, Wildflower Preserve trails and land areas are closed while work is underway and until such time as inspections show that the areas are again safe for visitor use. It is very important to respect these closures and stay well clear of the construction activities.
As the weather cools in the fall, our LBC trail guides will be offering guided tours into the preserve to allow our members and visitors to see the work in progress and to learn more about our restoration plans.
Phase 2: Wetland Improvements and Expansion
The second exciting phase of the Wildflower Preserve habitat restoration project is modifying and expanding the freshwater and estuarine wetlands at the preserve. This phase is scheduled to go out for bid in the fourth quarter of 2016, with construction beginning shortly thereafter.
Today, the wetlands at Wildflower consist of several freshwater ponds that were dug as part of the old golf course layout and portions of tidal Lemon Creek. The ponds are located in the eastern and central sections of the preserve. Lemon Creek runs north and south along the western side of the preserve.
Lemon Creek is an estuary, meaning a place where fresh and salt water mix. The creek receives tidal saltwater flows from Lemon Bay through culverts that run under Placida Road. It receives freshwater flows from rain and from the ponds to the east. Mangrove backwaters like Lemon Creek serve as important nursery sites for a variety of fish species (including tarpon and snook) and for many other species (such as blue crab). Mangrove creek acreage has declined dramatically over time due to construction pressures and these losses represent a major exposure for the long-term health of the many species that rely on this habitat. As part of the Wildflower restoration project, we will be reversing a small portion of these losses by adding nine acres of new estuarine wetlands within the preserve and improving the tidal flow between the creek and Lemon Bay.
The restoration project will also improve the freshwater wetlands within the preserve. Today, the old golf course ponds have steep sides and interconnecting underground pipes. Water flows into the ponds through stormwater drainage from the surrounding communities and many of the ponds have high nutrient levels that negatively impact water quality. As part of the restoration, we will be modifying many of the pond edges to eliminate steep sides and create gradual banks where native wetland plants will be added to help filter excess nutrients from the water and provide cover for wildlife. Underground connections between the ponds will be removed and above ground flow ways will be added. The changes will improve the existing freshwater areas and add five acres of new freshwater wetlands to the preserve.
Phase 3: Native Wetland and Upland Plantings
As various sections of the wetland expansion and improvements are completed, the next step in the restoration process will begin. The newly contoured areas will be replanted with native wetland species. At varying elevations along the wetland borders, a variety of plantings will be used.
In the estuarine habitats, plans call for smooth cordgrass in the low marsh areas, and saltmeadow grass, black needle rush, and seaside paspalum in the high marsh.
In the freshwater areas, planned low marsh plantings include sawgrass, softstem bulrush, arrowhead, alligator flag, pickerelweed and Gulf Coast spikerush. The upper marsh plantings will include saltmarsh bulrush, seashore paspalum, canna lily, maidencane, blueflag iris and soft rush.
Transitional zones near the wetland areas will be planted with sand cordgrass and muhly grass. A small island in one of the freshwater ponds will be planted with bald cypress and red maple.
A significant number of native cabbage palms (also known as sabal palms) are growing in areas that will become new wetlands as part of the restoration. Unlike most plants, cabbage palms transplant well when they are larger. Therefore, plans call for moving up to 120 cabbage palms out of the future wetland areas to nearby upland sites.
By the summer of 2017, we should be ready to begin native planting work on the uplands within Wildflower Preserve. Plans call for over 7,000 trees and shrubs to be planted across 42 acres of uplands. The plantings are scheduled to include saw palmetto, gallberry, coco plum, Florida swamp privet, firebush, yaupon holly, wax myrtle, red cedar, and South Florida slash pine.
While these initial plantings will be a major first step in restoring the uplands, as funds become available in the future, we hope to further expand the diversity of upland plantings by adding other native trees, shrubs and meadow plantings.
Phase 4: Ongoing Maintenance
For the first few years after the restoration project is complete, while the native plantings mature, quarterly maintenance will be required to prevent invasive plant species from returning. This will involve detailed work by professionals and volunteers to inspect every portion of the property and remove invasives as they begin to appear.
Over time, as the native growth becomes denser and the invasive seed bank decreases, the plant maintenance requirements will lessen, but ongoing vigilance to protect the native habitats will always be required. As landowner, Lemon Bay Conservancy will also be responsible for ongoing mowing and management of the trail network within the preserve and for management of other issues such as the damage that wild hogs can produce.
Habitat Restoration Project Funding
By now, you are probably wondering how a relatively small, local non-profit like Lemon Bay Conservancy could possibly design and fund a project like the Wildflower Preserve habitat restoration. The answer is: we have lots of help, both from you, our members and donors, and from our grant partners. And, while most of the project is funded, we still have a variety of funding needs that remain to be covered.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) is providing professional project leadership for the restoration, $750,000 in initial project funding, and an anticipated incremental $75,000 in funding currently in final budget review. The resources that the District is bringing to bear on the project are impressive. Scheda Ecological Associates, a very experienced restoration design firm, was engaged by the District to create the project design. Senior environmental scientist, Stephanie Powers, with SWFWMD’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) program, is serving as overall project manager, coordinating the planning and implementation work.
The SWFWMD funding is part of the District’s Cooperative Funding Initiative, which requires matching funds from the fund recipient. LBC provided its funding share for the initial $750,000 in project funding through its purchase costs for Wildflower Preserve. In 2017, LBC will be required to provide $75,000 in matching funds to complete the incremental funding. So far, thanks to generous contributions and pledges from key donors, we have raised $66,000 of the $75,000 required. In order to avoid dipping into LBC contingency funds, we are currently seeking $9,000 in incremental funds to complete our matching funds requirement.
Our second major grant partner in the restoration project is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Our $422,500 grant is one of six awarded nationwide under the 2015 NOAA Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grant program.
Leslie Craig, Southeast Region Supervisor of the NOAA Restoration Center, commented on why NOAA selected our project for funding: “The Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grants Program was created to help develop healthy and sustainable coastal ecosystems. This project was selected because it will restore a mosaic of coastal habitats, reestablish tidal connectivity, remove exotic species, and enhance a Preserve that can provide recreational opportunities for many to enjoy. We look forward to partnering with the Lemon Bay Conservancy to achieve all of the outcomes envisioned from the project.”
When you add it all up, our LBC team and our partners have committed $2,072,500 to purchase and restore Wildflower Preserve!
Other Projects: Enhancing Our Human Experiences at the Preserve
Wildflower is a nature preserve and the restoration project will make it a wonderful place for plants and animals. But, we also want it provide a beautiful place for our members and visitors to observe nature and learn about the environment. To improve the human experience at Wildflower, there are a variety of projects that we envision but do not yet have funded.
One key project is the placement of a bridge over the creek. The bridge would cross over the flow way between the new eastern creek area and the existing eastern prong of the creek. It would create access for our trail guides to lead tours around the creek without doubling back onto trails previously covered, allow for improved “loop” hiking trails, and provide observation points for photography and nature study. If we can build the bridge before the new wetland areas are opened to tidal flow, we can save money on construction costs. So, we are actively looking for donations and grant sources that would allow us to build this bridge in parallel with the estuarine wetland expansion that will begin in late 2016 or early 2017. The funding hurdle is significant. The estimated bridge cost is $50,000 to 70,000.
Other projects that we envision include raised, wooden observation platforms near the wetlands, interpretive signage and recycled plastic benches along the new trail network, wood duck nesting platforms in the freshwater wetlands, a new brochure to describe butterflies in the preserve, and sculptures in the butterfly habitat.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be an LBC contributor and to watch as our efforts transform Wildflower Preserve into a wonderful native habitat and an exciting resource for environmental education!