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Little Pine Island Nature Trail: a public-Private Work-In-Progress

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Little Pine Island Nature Trail:

A Public-Private Work-In-Progress

Ft. Myers News Press, 1/2002

Thick, exotic Melaleuca trees that forced out native plants and wildlife are gone from the marsh at Little Pine Island.

Today the Little Pine Island Nature Trail meanders through a sea of 40 species of grasses, bushes and trees that are home to mammals such as bobcats and marsh hares and some 70 bird species.

The return of native species to the 4,800-acre island in northwest Lee County is being accompanied by the return of people.

Volunteers have guided a dozen groups of hikers, bird watchers and plant lovers along the newly marked trail since tours started Dec. 27. They’ll continue through April 30.

The guided trail walks are exposing people to a public-private partnership that has saved Lee County taxpayers $1.7 million and has restored much of the island’s natural habitat.

“It’s just such a tremendous thing to be able to walk through that,” said Carla Kappmeyer, state public outreach coordinator for Little Pine Island who 10 years ago led groups through dense, dark Melaleuca forest.

Mariner Properties Development Inc. since 1997 has managed the land in a setup called mitigation banking that allows developers and government agencies to buy credits to offset damage they do to the environment.

Mariner Properties will spend up to $12 million during the 10-year project on the state-owned island, removing exotic vegetation, planting native plants and trees and filling old mosquito control ditches.

By law, if a development harms wetlands, the developer must mitigate the damage by restoring wetlands — either on the site of the development, creating or restoring on another site, donating wetlands to the state or buying mitigation credits at a mitigation bank.

Gone now from much of Little Pine Island are Melaleuca trees, which crowd out native vegetation and soak up four times the amount of water native vegetation uses.

When the state bought the island in the late 1970s, only about 100 acres of Melaleuca infested the island. That had grown to 1,800 acres by 1997.

As Mariner has restored the Little Pine Island Wetland Mitigation Bank, it has sold credits to developers and government agencies to offset wetlands destruction within the bank’s service area of coastal Lee and Charlotte counties and parts of Collier County.

Mariner ultimately could sell 807 credits for between $35,000 and $52,000 apiece. Ten percent of each sale goes into a trust fund for ongoing maintenance; 7 percent goes to the state.

So far the company has sold or reserved for sale about 250 credits.

Little Pine Island is a logical place to set up a mitigation bank, said Dick Anderson, Mariner director of sales and customer service.

Restoring it hits at the essence of what the state designed mitigation banking to do.

When a wetland functions properly, it provides habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals, stores and cleans water, and helps control flooding.

Little Pine Island over the years had lost its wetland functions, largely because of the invading Melaleuca trees. Anderson called it “dog-hair thick Melaleuca.”

Halfway through the project, a marsh and pine forest has reemerged in the island’s 1,500-acre interior and the mangrove fringe is thriving.

The project is an alternative to postage-stamp-size mitigation, in which a developer restores small sections of wetlands that don’t offer as much area to create habitat.

Today, Mariner has restored 600 of the 1,800 Melaleuca-laden acres it once faced.

The 2-mile Little Pine Island Nature Trail showcases some of that restoration and offers insight into what’s still to be done.

Little Pine Island guide Bill Lester, a retired high school principal and St. James City resident, opens each of his walks by telling people the walk is part of a state educational program.

He emphasizes that no taxpayer money has been used to restore the island. Mariner pays for the work to earn mitigation points.

Mariner’s work may never be done. The agreement calls for removal of the plants, restoring original water flow and also continued maintenance of the project.

“On the walk you will see the area before the process ... and see the mitigated area,” Lester said.

The project straddles Pine Island Road, but the trail is only on the north side. Eventually, the south side may also have marked trails. Now, Mariner’s work there and an active bald eagle nest keep the public out, Kappmeyer said.

Critics have said that mitigation banking leads to greater destruction of wetlands, charging that developers can buy the rights to destroy wetlands as long as they can write a check to the mitigation bank.

Not so, Anderson said.

To be considered for mitigation credits, the developer must prove to the permitting agency that destruction is unavoidable and that everything possible has been done to minimize any negative impact on the wetlands.

Lee County government is among the biggest users of mitigation banking.

The county used credits for road projects such as the Midpoint Memorial Bridge and road widenings on Gladiolus, Bonita Beach and Corkscrew roads. It will also use credits for the upcoming Alico Road widening and North Lee County Water Treatment Plant construction.

County commissioners found they saved $1.7 million in taxpayer money during the last five years of using the Little Pine Island project, and on Jan. 29 they approved an extension of the agreement to use it for another three years.

The county bought $1 million in mitigation credits from the mitigation bank in 1997 and has used $740,000 so far. When it bought the lump sum credits, it received a 30 percent discount and locked into a price that has yielded a $1.7 million savings compared to the market value for alternative mitigation sites.

Lee County residents have gotten needed road projects while restoring important wildlife areas in the county, said county commission Chairman Bob Janes.

That wildlife is thriving on Little Pine Island is obvious from the nature trail, where hikers can see rabbit and bobcat droppings, otter tracks and birds such as warblers and hawks.

The trail is open dawn to dusk daily. Kappmeyer recommends first-timers go with a guide to avoid getting lost.

As Cape Coral resident Norm Sandberg walked the trail with guide Lester recently, they crossed the marsh and startled a killdeer.

The bird took flight and screeched. They walked through needle rush and cord grass across the marsh, exchanging bird-watching stories.

“I like to walk, but I don’t like to walk when I see other people,” said Sandberg, a retired New York State corrections officer. ““This was worth the wait, and I’ll come back.””

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