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With care, humans' park can co-exist with nature

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 22, 2002

There is a gopher tortoise lying flat on its back in the middle of the gravel path. It flails and kicks but can't right itself. Another tortoise watches from the side of the road, standing at the end of a burrow. It is likely these two had a territorial dispute, and the one on his back is the loser.

I am standing in the Boyd Hill Nature Park, a 245-acre preserve in southern St. Petersburg, on the southwestern shore of Lake Maggiore. It is a miracle by Florida standards: an undeveloped piece of nature right smack in the middle of a large city.

In less than an hour, you can traverse a main trail that brings you through several habitats of entirely different character: swampy woodlands, marshes with sky-high reeds, scrubby open fields of palmetto and piney flatwoods. It is possible to see woodpeckers, fox squirrels, a variety of falcon, hawks, alligators, of course, and 22 different species of butterfly, among other creatures.

Boyd Hill is in the news now because the city has big plans for the 375-acre Lake Maggiore, and friends of the park are worried it will be hurt by the changes.

The city proposes to build a 21-acre neighborhood park on Lake Maggiore's northwest corner, and a 31-acre city park just below that, on the lake's western shore. The city now uses much of this land for dumping and chipping trees, training police dogs, and a practice tower for firefighters. The nature park lies to the southeast of this area.

More of the city's land wrapping around the west shore of the lake would be designated as a preserve. Exotic invaders such as Brazilian pepper would be removed and some marsh and woodlands would be restored.

But Pam McGuire, president of the group called Friends of Boyd Hill, told me there are several things to worry about. First, the city wants to use a road to haul out muck from the lake bottom. This road passes within the secondary zone of protection around a bald eagle's nest, and borders a nature study area.

"Our issue with the road," McGuire says, "is that it comes along an area that's not open or accessible to the public now. So animals that don't want to be near people have a way of getting away from them."

The Friends of Boyd Hill also are worried about some of the uses being kicked around for the park on the western shore, which would butt up against nature areas. Skateboard parks? Playgrounds? Dog parks?

"They don't physically intrude, meaning it doesn't take away land from the nature preserve," McGuire says. "But what we have now is something of a buffer between that and people. If you bring in a lot of high-volume activities, that's going to reduce that buffer zone." Any lighted area that disrupts the nocturnal habitat is a huge concern.

Mike Dove, deputy mayor, told me the city is sensitive to the environmental issues and that nothing has been settled. No one has proposed lighting the new areas near the preserve lands, and the park could close at dusk just as many others do. Skate parks, dogs parks and the other ideas are exactly that, ideas, and no precise sites are set.

As for the road, it does pass within the secondary zone around the eagle's nest -- between 750 and 1,500 feet away -- but not within the primary zone of 0 to 750 feet. Dove said it seems highly unlikely that the city is going to allow high-powered boats, or even jet skis, in the cleaned up lake.

"I love that area, too" Dove said. "I don't want to mess it up."

The impression I have is that the Friends of Boyd Hill are wise to be on hair-trigger alert. Things can change fast. But so far, Dove's words about lighting and uses are reassuring -- let's hope the mayor and City Council share the spirit.

A low-impact public access to the west shore of Lake Maggiore would be a great addition to the city. The neighborhood residents can certainly use the northwest park, too. If the city is careful on the topics of impact and light pollution, it is possible to satisfy many of these concerns.

As for the gopher tortoise, flailing on its back: The ranger told me, as I left the park, that it is better to let nature work things out. So I did not tell him that I gently turned the guy right side up and sent him on his way.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at

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