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    Islands of unspoiled beauty

    Signs near vegetation on an island off the coast of Dunedin help teach visitors about the environment.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- Robert Johnson sat, legs crossed, in the shade beneath a twine of mangrove branches when a yellow-crowned night heron took flight into the salt air.

    He could hear his grandchildren nearby. They were bringing him a present -- runaway fiddler crabs they had plucked from the sand.

    "Look what we found," said Carly, 3. "I was fast enough to catch them."

    Impressed by the curiosity of Carly and David, 5, Johnson laughed, flicked his lighter and puffed on his corn-cob pipe.

    "This is what I have found to be important to me," the Dunedin resident said. "This island and those kids. It is important for them to understand ecology, and I'm glad to be able to bring them here because this isn't something they can learn in school."

    Johnson is among the dozens of people who come each year by boat, water scooter, kayak and canoe to enjoy the natural beauty of this island less than a mile off the coast of Dunedin. They also reap the benefits of the state's effort to transform its 2 acres into an outdoor classroom.

    State employees have planted native vegetation -- mangrove shrubs, coral bean, sugarberry, kuntil, cedar trees and beach sunflowers -- and removed some exotic trees that could with time overrun the habitat.

    They also have installed signs and display cases so visitors can learn the names and history of what's been planted.

    Last May, state scientists and environmentalists began charting and studying the islands that dot the coast of Florida. This one, which carries the nondescript name of CW1, is the first to get educational signs.

    "What we're looking to do is come in and find out what is out here and restore some of it," said Yvonne Werzinsky, an environmental specialist with Tampa Bay Aquatic and Buffer Preserves, a division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

    "We want to help make these islands better for both the animals and people who use them because there is no reason why both can't enjoy them."

    The islands were created when the Intracoastal Waterway was dredged in the late '50s and early '60s to make it easier for boats to pass through.

    Over time, native and exotic vegetation began to grow on the piles of mud and sediment that were scooped out the water. One of the DEP's greatest opponents to helping the islands is the Brazilian pepper tree.

    Brazilian pepper, a large evergreen shrub tree with thick branches, can grow from 10 to 40 feet tall. It grows small, bright-red berries and yellow-white flowers in the fall and resembles holly.

    The trees, which are hard to get rid of, are spread primarily by animals that eat or carry the berries. If left alone, they can choke out native plants and trees.

    Last year when work on CW1 began, DEP workers had a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter deliver a wood chipper to the island. Workers then chopped down many of the trees and turned them into mulch that now lines a path around the island.

    Vandalism, Werzinsky said, is another problem on the islands. At one of the island's walkway entrances stands a bulletin board with a flier asking "Please Help Keep Our Islands Clean." The board's Plexiglas encasement was apparently broken with rocks.

    "The sad part about it all is that it's only a few who do this," said Lindsay McCoy, a land management specialist with Tampa Bay Aquatic and Buffer Preserves. "If those few could just come out and enjoy the wildlife instead of being destructive, this place would so much nicer."

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