Where Trees Walk and Time Stands Still

By staff March 1, 2005

It was a heist worthy of a master thief, flawlessly timed and brilliantly executed. Within minutes, almost from under my nose, a masked bandit had stolen not only my breakfast but most of my film.

The scene of the crime was a long, narrow saltern, a desert-like tract of parched mud in the heart of Jim Neville Marine Preserve. I was watching a raccoon dig for fiddler crabs (or so I thought; I now believe that was a ruse). While I was distracted, his furry accomplice nipped down to my canoe and purloined a bag of fresh pastries, along with the plastic pouch containing my film supplies. I found the pouch later, ripped open, its contents scattered in the muck. Most of the film was salvageable, so no harm done, I guess. Except maybe to their cholesterol.

It was a day like any other at the Neville preserve, a 35-acre island in Little Sarasota Bay along the southeastern shore of Siesta Key, where nature routinely exceeds your expectations. Named after a late environmental activist, the island is the largest of a number of mangrove islands in this tranquil stretch of bay, which is the most popular destination for kayakers in Sarasota County.

But that's not why I was there that day. I was there to get a good look at it, and Palmer Point Park as well, before they are changed forever.

Some time ago, both the preserve and nearby Palmer Point Park, a stretch of beach between the bay and the Gulf that was formed nearly 20 years ago when Midnight Pass closed, were earmarked for restoration, along with four other sites in Little Sarasota Bay. The work, which included the removal of invasive exotic plants, the introduction of native species, and the creation of new habitats, was slated to begin in 2004. For the Neville preserve alone, the cost was expected to fall somewhere between $2.5 and $4.1 million. Most of the money was to come from the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers, the rest from a variety of sources.

Then came Sept. 11, and federal funding evaporated.

Today, while there's still some uncertainty surrounding the budget, the plan is once again on track. Big changes are in the offing here, including a highly controversial $15 million scheme to reopen Midnight Pass, a plan that may alter the preserve in ways more far-reaching than the most ambitious restoration.

My day began well before dawn. Under a flickering street lamp, and the steady gaze of a night heron, I set out from the Turtle Beach boat ramp, bound for the site of the proposed new Midnight Pass, about half a mile to the south.

Palmer Point Park lies at the juncture of Casey and Siesta keys, where Midnight Pass once flowed into Little Sarasota Bay. The pass has migrated numerous times over the last century, moving south, from around Turtle Beach, to the nearby tip of Casey Key. In the 1970s it began to creep northward again, prompting nervous homeowners to seek permission to close it. In 1983 the county agreed, providing it was reopened a thousand feet further south. The homeowners tried. And tried. And tried again. But each time a new channel was dug, it clogged with sand. After several failed attempts, with the county's blessing, the pass was left closed.

I slid ashore just before daybreak. From the little beach on the Intracoastal side, a dirt road stretched in both directions. To the north, crumbling seawalls marked the site of Mote Marine Laboratory's first incarnation. The structure it occupied was long gone, the tiny finger of land it sat on outgrown by the needs of Mote's scientists. To the south, the road led past one of Casey Key's more impressive private residences, a modernistic manse belonging to novelist Stephen King.

Palmer Point Park illustrates what a motivated group of volunteers can accomplish, given a little time and leeway. Twelve years ago, members of the Southeast chapter of the American Littoral Society restored part of the park on their own, armed only with some shovels and chain saws purchased through a $4,000 grant from the Selby Foundation. The project's prime mover was Sarasota's John Sarkozy, whose sunset kayak tours are the stuff of legend among local paddlers. For Sarkozy and his volunteers, it was a labor of love. They felled Australian pines and ripped out Brazilian peppers, replacing them with sea grapes, necklace pod shrubs, red cedars, and other native species grown in their own backyards. They worked for weeks to undo the damage wrought by years of neglect, carting away trash, and turning impenetrable thickets into productive habitats. Now hearty dune plants stabilize the sands, providing shade and nesting spots for migratory shorebirds like the piping plover, which was recently added to the Federal Endangered Species List.

"I've known the area for 32 years," says Sarkozy. "I've watched it evolve from an open pass to a closed estuary system, fed by North Creek, across the bay. It's always had a special place in my heart."

This is the proposed site of the new Midnight Pass. The plans call for a channel 500 feet long, 400 feet wide, and 12 to 14 feet deep. It will bisect not only Palmer Point Park, but the south end of the Neville preserve. Supporters promote the project as a water-quality issue, claiming that the bay's newly modified hydrology will result in less pollution, more seagrass, and more fish and birds. Opponents insist that the inevitable increase in recreational boat traffic will do more harm than good, displacing not only birds, but nesting sea turtles and manatees.

The fact is, a channel that size is bound to affect the area in ways that can't be foreseen. The permitting process is well underway. If it's really a risk worth taking, we may know soon.

On such a morning, in such a place, it was hard to be gloomy, despite the uncertain future. The predawn air was still and cool, the distant clouds pink as a spoonbill's bottom. It was the perfect time to tour Neville preserve.

The island lay to the east, across a shallow lagoon. The water was shin-deep, clean and clear. The sandy bottom was littered with thousands of tiny volcanoes, debris cones excreted by burrowing worms, "filter feeders" that passed sediments through their bodies, ingesting the organic contents.

Sometimes wading, other times paddling, I rounded the preserve's southern tip, passing a tiny islet said to be a rookery. The egrets like it, one fisherman said, because unlike on some of the larger islands, there are no raccoons there.

The largest spoil island was created by the dredging of Little Sarasota Bay in the 1950s and '60s. It's surrounded by 20 or so smaller islets. All of them boast healthy, productive stands of mangroves (or "walkin' trees," as the old-timers called them), but the higher elevations of the preserve are overrun with Australian pines. These are particularly troublesome. Their leaf litter is toxic and forms dense mats that hinder the growth of native plants. Their brittle branches, bristling with wispy needles, are unsuitable for birds' nests; and their shallow root systems can't anchor the trees in high winds.

The preserve occupies 35 acres. It's ringed with a dense band of mangroves, broken only by a few small stands of a tough, hearty marsh grass called Spartina. There are red mangroves, lots of black mangroves, but few, if any, white mangroves. The absence of whites makes the tree mix here a little atypical, as mangrove forests go.

In terms of total acreage, the island has grown little in the 40-odd years since it was created. A misconception shared by many is that mangroves are "land builders." It's more accurate to refer to them as "land stabilizers." Their roots bind the soil and diminish the erosive impacts of tides and boat wakes. They also trap the propagules, or seedlings, of other mangroves, encouraging the growth of new trees.

At the water's edge, the red mangroves hang low above the lapping waves. Wading along their ragged margins stirs up clouds of gooey muck, a malodorous bouillon of rotting leaves, bacteria, and fungi. But what stinks to us is rocket fuel to the tiny organisms that dwell and die here, a vital ingredient in a vast and complex medley of interdependent life forms.

Scattered around the island lie submerged beds of greenish-brown, stubbly shoal grass, or Halodule. Some beds are thick and luxurious, others as sparse as thinning whiskers. Halodule is usually the first seagrass to re-colonize disturbed areas, like outboard motor prop scars. Once established, it's a nurse plant for other seagrass species, making it easier, somehow, for them to take root. In the larger beds on the Intracoastal side there's turtle grass as well, with long flat blades coated with microscopic epiphytes, food and shelter for shrimp, crabs, larval fish, and a host of other minute organisms.

In the sheltered lagoons, foot-long, torpedo-shaped red mangrove propagules float just below the surface, gripped by tidal currents, their pointed tips trailing in the mud. Singly or in pairs they file past, bound for parts unknown. Their mission is to colonize. Some have already taken root, only to be dislodged and set adrift again. They can survive this way for a year or more, biding time until they're cast ashore by some retreating tide. Failing this, they will eventually sink and drown.

A break in the mangroves marked the spot where I was mugged by the raccoons. After I retrieved my film I went back to explore the saltern. Such habitats are rare and fragile, and depend on a cycle of infrequent tidal inundations for their survival. If flooded more than a few times a month they disappear under a carpet of opportunistic vegetation. Unfortunately, most of Florida's salterns (or salt barrens, as they're also called) are doomed by global warming, which, at its present rate, raises the sea level about twice the thickness of a fingernail every year.

But there are several salterns on this island. They present somewhat of a logistical problem to Curtis Smith, Sarasota County's project manager for the Jim Neville Preserve and Palmer Point Park restorations. He has to find a way to get a work crew and heavy earth-moving equipment onto the island without harming any sensitive habitats.

"The amount of detail in a restoration like this is amazing," he says. He explains that five different restoration concepts are currently under consideration for Neville preserve. Each is to be evaluated in terms of such factors as the habitat created, impact on water quality and impact on local navigation. Whatever approach they choose, their first task will be to clear out all the exotics, including thousands of Australian pines and Brazilian peppers. Then they'll dig tidal channels and regrade the island so native plants can take hold.

The concepts have also been evaluated in terms of how they'll integrate with the opening of Midnight Pass. But whether or not the pass is opened, says Smith, they plan to begin the restoration of both the Neville preserve and Palmer Point in 2006 and complete it by early 2007.

As I toured the preserve, I kept thinking about the coming restoration, and wondering how this beautiful place would change. I spent some time chasing grumpy herons with a camera, and then broke in a new GPS unit, which tells your exact location, anywhere on earth to within about 15 feet. I probably won't ever need it; but after hearing the solitary trekker Aaron Ralston describe in graphic detail what it was like to sever his own arm (after a boulder fell on it, trapping him in a remote slot canyon), I resolved to carry one-and a cell phone-anywhere I go in the wild.

Soon it was almost sunset. Drawn by the cries of feeding birds, I rounded the island's northern tip. The tide was out; and there, on a broad mudflat, were a thousand gulls at least, preening, calling, but mostly just sitting, in a vast company. There were egrets and herons, too, by the dozens, feeding, fussing, or standing guard. Veering south and west, I gave them a wide, respectful berth. A single heron took flight, its neck tucked in a graceful "S." To my surprise, the rest stayed put.

From the shallow lagoon at Palmer Point Park I watched the sun sink into the sand. There was no moon, and the night was unusually dark. As I made my way back towards Turtle Beach, I passed by the old Mote seawall, at a place where the water was black and deep.

Suddenly there was a burst of light on the blade of my paddle. It was faint, but unmistakable. The canoe was bathed a blue-green, ghostly glow, just below the waterline. It stopped, as abruptly as it began. Scientists call the phenomenon bioluminescence, a chemical reaction that occurs inside a common single-celled algae called a dinoflagellate. It stores photosynthetic energy from sunlight, and emits a tiny "cold spark" when it's disturbed. Scientists can even tell you what purpose they think this serves: It's a built-in burglar alarm that spooks predators.

An unscientific friend calls bioluminescence "the voice of God." I like that; the idea that God would speak softly, with a whisper of light. But mostly, I think of it as starlight that's undergone a sea change. And though I'd never go so far as to ascribe an emotion like joy to a unicellular organism, I also wonder if maybe, just maybe, those tiny algae glow because they're in the right place at the right time.

To learn more about the plans to restore the Neville preserve and Palmer Park, visit 

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