Open season on invaders

County employees agree to gang up on invasive, exotic species in our nature preserves.

By THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008

Most mornings, leaning on his cane with each step, Reggie Hall hikes into the small nature preserve behind his home to do battle.

Physical frailty does not weaken his resolve. He's ready to fight the invaders that threaten to choke out the beauty of native Florida. Air potatoes are shooting out vines and growing new spuds. Birds are spreading Brazilian pepper seeds.

But for several years, the invasive plants have had the upper hand. So Hall took his battle to the Pinellas County Courthouse.

Do more, he pleaded. Use some of the workers you already have tending county parks to take care of Pinellas' nature preserves, too.

Tuesday, they did, starting at the Ozona Preserve. At 8.3 acres, it's the smallest of the county's preserves, which unlike parks, are not used for active recreation.

"Call me an instigator," said Hall, 56, who retired from a record store business a few years ago and devotes himself to caring for the preserve as a volunteer and an advocate.

In that second role, Hall has lobbied for county officials to take more action in maintaining county preserves. After hearing his appeal, county officials agreed: More needed to be done, especially to stop the air potato.

"It's like something out of a Hollywood horror film," Bruce Rinker, director of Environmental Lands Division, said of the air potato. "It produces these monstrous seed pods and very aggressive vines."

Once it gets established, Rinker said, it's "Goodbye, open space. So we need to be similarly aggressive in our removal of air potato."

When Hall talked with Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of Culture, Education and Leisure, a solution emerged for the county's environmental lands.

The county's parks and nature preserves are different departments, but county officials decided there's no reason that employees from one operation can't help their colleagues in another.

So now parks and recreation staff will help maintain environmental lands and preserves in addition to taking care of county parks. During the slower growing season, the parks staff has less landscape maintenance to perform and can spend some time maintaining the county's environmental lands, which are open spaces reserved for wildlife and passive recreation. Those lands include the Brooker Creek, Travatine Island, Joe's Creek, Shell Key and Weedon Island preserves, plus smaller parcels.

"In times of less budget and less personnel, we're helping each other," said Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management. "And this is a good example of that."

The Environmental Lands Division doesn't have the staff to give such specialized care to the large number of acres in their inventory, Cozzie said Tuesday, so his staff will help. In return, Cozzie will look to Environmental Lands for help with management plans and controlled burn plans for county parks.

"They've got science resources that we can certainly make use of and we have the labor and maintenance resources that they can make use of," Cozzie said.

At Hall's request, Pinellas County purchased the first of three parcels that make up the Ozona Preserve nearly 20 years ago. Since then, Hall has watched over the preserve, technically called a management area, as two more parcels were added. A contractor treated exotic plants a couple of times in the past few years, but Hall and his few volunteers have still struggled to keep trash, debris and non-native plants from taking over Ozona's haven for wildlife.

"When I actually see those people cross this bridge from the park department, and do the things we need to do, then that's going to be a beautiful thing," Hall said Monday.

"It's only 81/3 acres big, and yet it encapsulates a lot of the ecological problems that we have throughout Pinellas County," Rinker said.

Reach Theresa Blackwell at tblackwell@sptimes.com or 727 445-4170.