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County trying to buy wildlife haven

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002

The ospreys that built their nest above a Port Tampa baseball field know how to pick a neighborhood.

Their nest is just a few flaps away from 200 acres of wetlands and a vast expanse of mullet-rich water.

In other words, the grocery store is right next door.

"It's a bird paradise back there," said Jill Buford, president of the Port Tampa Civic Association.

And it might stay that way forever if a land deal is inked between Hillsborough County and CSX railroad.

For years, the county has wanted to buy the mostly soggy land that CSX owns between Port Tampa and Picnic Island Park. Now, negotiations are moving forward.

Chances of working out a deal are "reasonably good," said Kurt Gremley, acquisition manager for the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. "Maybe by the end of the year."

Most of the land has little potential for development, Gremley said. But environmentalists, Port Tampa residents and local officials still want to reduce that potential from slim to none.

Conserving the land wouldn't be just for the birds.

The parcel would be a keystone in an emerging South Tampa greenways network for bicyclists and pedestrians. It would link Bayshore Boulevard to the Friendship Trail Bridge, by way of trails through Gandy, Interbay and Ballast Point. A separate leg would jog across the north end of MacDill Air Force Base to Picnic Island Park.

City of Tampa officials also envision a "blueways trail" for canoes and kayaks between Port Tampa and Picnic Island.

"There's a great opportunity," said Tom Johnston, a planner in the city parks office.

With negotiations in progress, Gremley wouldn't discuss the likely land cost. CSX officials also declined to comment.

Right now, it's so remote few people have even seen it.

Those who have say it's a swath of Tampa out of Old Florida.

"I've walked the water at low tide," said Jim Valentine, special services manager for Tampa's parks, "and there's some mangroves out there that are just humongous."

Oyster reefs thrive and flocks of birds wade, including roseate spoonbills and rare reddish egrets.

"People should know there is a lot of wildlife down there," said Buford. "That's why we're trying to protect the land."

Local officials say there are 4 to 5 acres dry enough to build on. Perfect, they say, for bicycle trails and boardwalks.

If the land is bought, some restoration would be in order. Mosquito ditches dug decades ago altered the natural plumbing. And the place is infested with fast-growing Brazilian pepper and other non-native plants.

While talks with CSX continue, other portions of the emerging greenway are being pieced together.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet voted to spend $1.1-million to buy 14 acres of woods between MacDill and Robinson High School.

Developers wanted to build an apartment complex there. Now it will likely become a nature park.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

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