Little Pine Island Marks 10 Years of Wetland Restoration

By Carla Kappmeyer-Sherwin, Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council member

A major milestone in exotic removal, the 10th anniversary marking the restoration of Little Pine Island, occurred on March 24, 2007. Residents of Pine Island and other communities within greater southwest Florida joined in the open house celebration hosted by Mariner Properties Development. Activities included a wildlife photography workshop, guided hikes, kayak raffle, and a barbecue lunch. High sprits and good humor abounded at a ceremony in which the last remaining melaleuca tree, which had been spray-painted gold, was felled with a golden ax! Why all the hoopla? This restoration is a tale worth telling.

Little Pine Island (LPI) is an extensive coastal wetland sandwiched between Pine Island and Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve in the greater Ft. Myers area of the Florida Gulf Coast. Landward from the island’s fringing mangrove forest, the interior is transformed into an array of salt and freshwater marshes, salt flats, maritime meadows, buttonwood hammock, and stands of slash pine. A cross section resembles an inverted shallow bowl with the highest areas of elevation towards the center where Pine Island Road (State Road 78) bisects the 4700 acre island. This site, which is a part of Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park, also functions as a mitigation bank through a partnership between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Mariner Properties Development (MPD). It is a listed stop on the South Florida Birding Trail. LPI is predominantly high marsh consisting of broad expanses of grasses (Distichlis, Paspalum, and Spartina spp.) sedges (Eleocharis and Fimbristylis spp.), and black needlerush (Juncus spp.). This invaluable habitat exports tons of organic biomass to the estuary annually, supports a diversity of wildlife, serves as a nursery for juvenile fish, and provides critical rest stops and breeding areas for migratory birds.

Salt marsh habitat is one of the most impacted ecosystems in the greater Charlotte Harbor estuary. Over 60% of the original marshes surrounding the harbor were lost to development or habitat changes caused by hydrological alteration. Mosquito control ditching and draining operations on LPI were initiated in the late 1950s and continued into the 1960s, while the island was privately owned. LPI’s hydrologic regime was altered, facilitating the spread of melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia), Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), and Australian pine (Casuarina spp.). The loss of sheet flow and tidal action together with the infestation of melaleuca was destroying the marsh and its capacity to support wildlife. Had it not been for the fortuitous attendance of a local entrepreneur at a Washington, D. C. conference in 1993, this rare gem of an island might have been lost forever.

Raymond Pavelka, President, Mariner Properties Development (MPD) had experienced uncertainties and liabilities associated with traditional on-site / off-site mitigation in his 21 years with Mariner Properties, Inc. At the Urban Land Institute Conference, he listened to a presentation of a study showing that 74% of project mitigation during the past 10 years had failed. The concept of mitigation banking was introduced and Ray took up Thomas Edison’s challenge “There’s a better way—-Find it!” Mindful of the potential, he began to explore the feasibility of establishing a bank in coastal southwest Florida and sought out a scientist known for wetland restoration experience, Kevin Erwin, Principal Ecologist, Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist (KLECE). Erwin, who was a member of Govenor Lawton Chiles’ Wetland Mitigation Banking Task Force, had just published a comprehensive study, Wetland Mitigation in the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). He confirmed that mitigation banking was one of the more desirable solutions to offset some types of unavoidable wetland impacts and a list of potential bank sites was prepared.

Erwin had worked on LPI previously, aiding its transfer from private to public ownership and suggested LPI as an ideal site, one meriting a high standard of restoration due to the rapidly expanding impacts resulting from drainage and exotic infestation. Meetings were held with Tallahassee officials to discuss the possibility of a public/private partnership. With the strong support of key DEP personnel, Mariner Properties Development secured unanimous approval by the Governor and Cabinet, completing rigorous state and federal permitting processes within 2.5 years. As the Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank (LPIMB) was one of the first banks to be approved, agency regulators and MPD were actually defining the process as they went through it.

Wetland mitigation is the replacement of wetland functions which are lost through impacts to wetlands arising from private development or public projects. Erwin conducted the research and developed the state’s first wetland functional assessment methodology for evaluating potential wetland impact sites that would use LPIMB as the required form of wetland mitigation. Between 1993 and early 1997, baseline studies were completed to determine the historical ecology, existing wetland functional capacity, methods of restoration, and criteria for success. His 1996 landmark report, A Functional Assessment Procedure For Wetland Impact Sites provides the criteria and formulas for determining Wetland Functional Capacity Scores for nine critical functions including 1) habitat for wetland dependent species, 2) support of food chains, 3) support of native plant populations, 4) maintenance of biological integrity, 5) provision of landscape heterogeneity, 6) access to aquatic refugia, 7) maintenance of natural hydrologic regimes, 8) maintenance of water quality, and 9) support of soil processes. Calculations to determine the number of required bank credits were also derived. Credits, the equity in the bank, are created as a direct result of increased functional capacity resulting from restoration, and are sold or transferred to a private entity or public agency in need of compensation for wetland impacts. One wetland mitigation credit is equivalent to the ecological value of one acre of healthy, properly functioning restored wetland. The LPI mitigation service area includes portions of Charlotte, Lee, Sarasota, and Collier Counties inland from the coast to, at, or above the 100-year flood plain line.

LPI is a large-scale, regional bank that initially called for the removal of 1600 acres of invasive vegetation and the hydrological restoration of 3300 acres. Weather, longer hydroperiods, melaleuca encroachment on to another 200 acres, and working around nesting bald eagles that now return annually to a restored area resulted in extending the operations and increasing the number of years and investment costs originally estimated for completion. However, this restoration, now in its final phase, is equivalent to the replacement of nearly 500 separate wetland mitigation projects—their permitting, construction, and monitoring, and is far more successful than the traditional “postage stamp” mitigation sites which are generally more costly to restore, manage, and monitor for compliance. Private developers and public agencies such as the SFWMD, Department of Transportation, and Lee County government have benefited from LPI’s cost effective credits and ecologically sound restoration.

Richard Anderson, Director of Sales and Customer Service for Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank and Corkscrew Regional Mitigation Bank, is responsible for the marketing, sales, and administration of wetland mitigation credits. Dick also serves as the liaison to government permitting agencies, development project consultants, real estate interests, community organizations, and the media. After securing agency permits and conducting baseline ecological research, the MPD team began to address the public and meet with community associations. Misconceptions such as the intent to build a subdivision or a gated community arose. In April 1997, LPI began undergoing the initial phases of exotic removal.

Bob Offi, MPD’s Onsite Project Manager encountered numerous snags during the past ten years. Temporary roads were constructed for the removal of an average of 30 tons of exotic biomass per acre. Rigid steel mats had to be replaced with tire mats better suited to conditions and the movement of track hoes carrying trees to chippers. Chipped material was then shipped to an offsite composting facility or an electric plant for use as biofuel. The removal was labor-intensive. Melaleuca was hand-cut with chainsaws and the stumps treated with herbicide. Kevin Erwin had investigated herbicide application rates and determined that a 20% concentration of Garlon would kill the exotics without harming the native seed bank. Bob recalled the sheer magnitude of cutting, treating, and removing an exotic forest in keeping with the special permit requirements. The nursery he set up for supplemental plantings was eventually phased out, due to the phenomenal seed bank recovery. Initially the barren appearance of clear-cut areas alarmed those accustomed to driving through the corridor of exotic forest on Pine Island Road. Wagon ride tours of the site were scheduled for area residents, agency personnel, environmental groups, and others. Functional Assessment of Wetlands Workshops were held several times a year to train environmental specialists. Offi is in constant communication with the removal and maintenance crews. Consolidated Resource Recovery foreman David Pahuta made the commitment to see the restoration through to the end. Foreman Rainey Adams of Caretaker Management and his crew have ensured thorough follow-up maintenance. More than 5 million melaleucas and 100 million pounds of exotic vegetation have been removed during the past 10 years. Seven miles of ditches have been filled. Bob also coordinates with KLECE ecologists who are engaged in site monitoring. To date, 103 bird species (including 51 wetland-dependent species), 11 mammal species, 17 reptile species, 7 amphibian species, 13 fish species, and 95 aquatic macro-invertebrate species have been counted.

Although the cost to restore LPI will total nearly $12 million, no public funding or taxpayer dollars have been involved. All restoration, maintenance, and monitoring costs are paid for by MPD. Of the total revenue generated from mitigation credit sales, 7% which constitutes about $2 million, is designated as a “State Use Fee” and is returned to Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. Further, an additional 5% of the total revenue from credits sales, in excess of $1.5 million, was set aside when the LPI Preservation Trust Fund was created to fund the perpetual maintenance and long-term monitoring of the island. Preserve staff and others will have the opportunity to act as resource providers to the Management Trustees. DEP and MPD created a model public/private partnership that exemplifies key partnership principles such as a strong, shared commitment to achieving objectives, collectively possessing needed technical expertise, and fundamental trust. MPD and KLECE expanded these principles by adding open-mindedness to problem-solving and applying new techniques creatively.

Had Ray Pavelka not assumed the risk or engaged such an effective team, Little Pine Island would have been entombed in melaleuca. Although Mariner Properties Development has yet to recoup the investment, the ecological profit–a recovered, thriving wetland is tremendous. And returning from a walk through a sea of softly waving grasses in the quiet of an evening as the afternoon shadows lengthen with the setting sun–priceless!

Contact Richard Anderson, Mariner Properties Development, Inc., 13451 McGregor Blvd., Suite 31, Ft. Myers, FL  33919; or Kevin Erwin, Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist, Inc. 2077 Bayside Parkway, Ft. Myers, FL  33901.