History of Flint Pen Strand: Part One

photo by Michael Lund

Flint Pen Strand becomes part of the CREW Project

Volunteer Perspective Series

By Nan Mattingly

Have you hiked the trails of CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS) yet? Seen a pair of ospreys fly overhead and heard their distinctive call? Enjoyed the serenity of walking alongside the Kehl Canal on the red trail? Watched the antics of shorebirds along the lakes on the eastern side? Identified any of the colorful wildflowers that grow throughout the 14,000-acre property?

If so, you and many hikers, equestrians, bicyclists, hunters, photographers, dog walkers and nature lovers owe a big thanks to the people, organizations and local and state governments who cooperated to acquire the land, restore its natural ability to collect and purify water to replenish the aquifers and develop the trails that we now enjoy.

To encourage you and your family to discover the beauty of FPS, we’ve written a series of blogs to tell you a little about the background of the establishment of FPS as part of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) Project, the historical use of the land and the restoration of its wetlands.

Dwarf Cypress trees on the Yellow Trail North at Flint Pen Strand

The area now known as CREW Flint Pen Strand was, in the late twentieth century, a flat and flood-prone area. At that time, the land was in the beginning stages of development for single-family homes on five- to ten-acre plots. A small part of the land was already inhabited and was being used for pasture, row crops and other agricultural activities, and a mobile home park was situated within its boundaries.

But local officials, environmentalists and residents recognized that development was affecting surface water storage and the natural flow of water from the Lake Trafford area through Lee and Collier County and into the Imperial and Cocohatchee Rivers. Bonita Springs was experiencing increased flooding and contamination of surface and ground waters. After a great deal of tangling with red tape, many community hearings and various assessments, it was decided that it was critical to halt development and restore the ecosystem of the land to improve water quality and supply, reduce the threat of flooding and improve habitat for protected species and other wildlife.

Flint Pen Strand during the rainy season

Water quality testing at that time had revealed the undesirable effects of agricultural and residential use of the land. These activities added pollutants to the water and decreased the time that water could linger on the land, reducing the amount of water that seeped into the aquifer. This finding made the restoration project more urgent. 

An environmental assessment performed, as a part of the larger project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, found that the restoration of FPS wetlands would reclaim habitat needed by several species, including wood storks, an endangered species at that time (now classified as threatened). Wood storks have extremely specific foraging requirements, and FPS promised to provide their essential needs for nesting and feeding. Consideration was also given to the Florida panther, its need for space to roam, and the numerous other species protected within their range, as well as the Florida black bear and the Big Cypress fox squirrel. The project also would aim to remove much of the exotic vegetation that had invaded the land, primarily melaleuca trees and Brazilian pepper bushes.   

Woodstorks and numerous other wading birds at Flint Pen Strand, November of 2019

In short, restoration of FPS promised considerable benefits for wildlife, vegetation and people.

If you look at a map of the CREW Project as it now exists, you’ll see that FPS is a key part of the project, adjoining CREW Bird Rookery Swamp and buffering Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. FPS comprises a large part of the 60,000-acre CREW Project. More importantly, FPS has become a key part of the protection of the 3-aquifers underlying the CREW Project – the aquifers that provide much of the drinking and general use water for southern Lee County and northern Collier County. The ongoing restoration of the wetlands and the landscape of FPS is now transforming this environmentally valuable property into a place that everyone can enjoy – a place that allows birds and many species to call it home and that will help keep us all supplied with drinking water.     

And if you want to see some evidence of whether or not this ambitious restoration project has achieved any of its goals, check out the weekly volunteer observation reports by a CREW Trust volunteer who records the type and number of species he encounters in his lengthy trail walks. Those observations are posted on the CREW Land & Water Trust Facebook page (@CREWTrust). Additionally, if you walk the Red Trail, you’ll find an area that some call the melaleuca graveyard. A lot of work by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has gone into the effort to kill those invasive trees that threaten native species. That work continues.  Keep an eye out for the next post in this series – it may surprise you, to learn who the earliest users of FPS lands and resources were and how they traveled to get there.

CREW Trust installs new Watershed Signs

Most of our visitors come to the CREW trails for recreation. Walking, hiking, camping, birding, trail running, horseback riding – there are a lot of different ways to play!

What most people don’t know is that recreation – and people – are actually third on the list of what the CREW Project land is for. Habitat for wildlife is second on the list, and the number one spot, the main reason that the CREW Project exists is to preserve land for water.

If you’ve been on a guided walk or attended a field trip, you’ve probably heard us talk about the watershed, and our aquifer, and why it’s important for our aquifer to be recharged each year during the rainy season. It’s a tough concept, though – explaining a watershed while you’re standing on top of an observation tower, looking over the 5,000-acre sawgrass marsh.

A few years ago, Brenda Brooks, our executive director had an idea – what if we had something permanent on the trails, like a sign, or a 3-D model, that explained what a watershed was? Something that helped our visitors with a sense of their place within a watershed, something that helped them understand their connection to the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed and, most importantly – why they should care.

In 2017, the CREW Trust staff approached local graphic designer Mike Donlan with a rough construction paper model created by Brenda and volunteer George Luther and asked him – could he help?

The result, after months of work, is our new “What is a Watershed” sign, installed at each of our trail systems.

The signs were paid for by a generous grant through the South Florida Water Management District – Big Cypress Basin.

The center image of each sign is a watershed model that depicts the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, including the very slight elevation change and the different ecosystems within it. The background photograph was taken from inside one of the sawgrass marshes at the Cypress Dome Trails. Pictures on the right panel help explain the four reasons why visitors should care about the watershed.

“Our hope is that this sign will help visitors connect with CREW,” explained Brenda. “We know people love the trails and the wildlife but CREW is really about water. This sign will help further our mission of protecting and preserving the land for our most important natural resource in Southwest Florida.”

Empty, full or overflowing – a reflection on this season

Because CREW is all about water, it’s only natural that we go ahead and use the “Glass-half-empty-or-half-full” analogy for this season.

Yes, truly, April is the end of season for us. We’re still catching our breath from five months packed full of guided walks and programs and….

quiet down back there, we hear you laughing

Let’s be honest for a second.

This season was NOT packed full of guided walks and programs.

It was planned that way. Honestly.

We sat down in August, like we always do, with a giant calendar and list of ideas and programs and names and dates and times. We look at all kinds of things, from holidays to full moons to school spring breaks, when planning our season. And we had a GREAT season planned. We patted ourselves on the back and gave ourselves gold stars and then Hurricane Irma hit.

And, month by month, we cancelled programs at Bird Rookery Swamp as the trail was closed for repairs. And then, Flint Pen Strand’s opening was delayed, so we cancelled those programs month by month.

For many of the people that messaged us, or emailed us, or left comments on our blog posts, or called and complained to us – our glass, for them, was half empty. Understandably so.

Luckily for us, we had volunteers, members, friends and visitors who also saw our glass as half full. So what if half our programs were cancelled and our busiest, most popular trail was closed? There is more to CREW than Bird Rookery Swamp and the unfulfilled promise of a new trail in Bonita Springs.

And those people helped our glass get to where it is today – overflowing.

This season that was a non-season brought us so much, including a few highlights:

-Two successful clean-ups in Flint Pen Strand. With the help of FGCU students, Passarella & Associates, Inc., CREW Trust volunteers and community volunteers, tires, appliances, carpets, trash and more were removed from this section of the watershed.

-an increase in visitors to the CREW Marsh Trails, which is mainly used for field trips for FGCU students and elementary students in Lee and Collier Counties.

-a big increase in visitors to the Cypress Dome Trails, which has always been our quietest trail system.

-a new nickname for alligators that block the path at Bird Rookery Swamp – “Hi Susan!”

-a new sign answering the question “What is a Watershed?” designed locally by graphic designer Michael Donlan and paid for by a grant from South Florida Water Management District-Big Cypress Basin. This sign is installed at each of the CREW trail systems.

-award-winning photographer Andrew West, who set up a camera trap and began capturing gorgeous images of panthers in the northern part of the CREW Project.

-the launch of Soil ROCKS at the Cypress Dome Trails, a program for second grade students that has been two years in the making

Jessi Drummond, education coordinator, launched Soil ROCKS!, a field trip for second graders in March 2018

-a record number of Swallow-tailed kite nests found at the CREW Marsh trails.

-a record amount of funds raised at our February concert in spite of two downpours.

-an outpouring of warmth and happiness from our friends and members and social media followers when Bird Rookery Swamp finally re-opened.

-the surprise creation, donation and installation of a brand new sign for our field station – thank you, Klaus, for your creativity and support. It replaced the sad, hastily-spray painted post-Hurricane Irma sign that we had propped out by the road for months.

-the capturing by game camera of the BEST BEAR SELFIE EVER. (full disclosure- the bear destroyed the game camera. our fullest apologies to our volunteer Tom, who donates and monitors the cameras)

Even though it’s April, we’re already planning for next season. Here’s hoping that all of our plans come to fruition, that all of our programs happen and that any hurricanes or major weather events stay far, far away.

Thank you, friends of the CREW Trust, for bearing with us this season through it all, and we hope to see you on the trails.

 

Join us for Amazing Animal Abilities – our second annual Family Fun Day!

Check your wingspan, show off your jumping abilities, learn about backyard birds and so much more at Amazing Animal Abilities on Saturday, April 14, 2018 from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at the CREW Cypress Dome Trails!

This year’s event will take place in an open field near the trailhead with ample parking for guests. Adults and children can visit 10 stations, experiencing everything from nature-related crafts and geocaching to learning more about local and migratory birds and the wildlife that calls CREW home.

Informative volunteer naturalists will lead small groups on guided nature walks, teaching families about the CREW project, identifying flora and fauna and helping establish a connection between guests and nature.

 

 

“My hope for this event is to bring more young families out to the CREW trails,” explained Jessi Drummond, education coordinator for CREW Land & Water Trust. “We want to show them how easy it is to have fun in nature and provide them with ideas and activities they can do at home or while visiting CREW.”

Families are encouraged to register for this free event by visiting crewtrust.org. Cost is $5 per family for non-members; families who are members attend for free.

The CREW Cypress Dome Trails offer six miles of well-marked loop trails through pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, wet prairie, popash slough and cypress domes. The trails are flat and mainly composed of grass and sand. There is no running water at the site and a portable bathroom is available for use.

The CREW Cypress Dome Trails are located at 3980 Corkscrew Road, Immokalee, just 15 minutes east of I-75 near the Estero/Collier County border.

Alligators and YOU

So many friends of the CREW Land & Water Trust love Bird Rookery Swamp and head there on a regular basis for wildlife viewing. The number one, top-of-the-list animal they are there to see?

Alligators.

 

For first-time visitors, seeing an alligator seems thrilling and exciting until they almost step on one along the tram/trail or have the unfortunate luck to have their path blocked by a sunning gator. In response to a few calls we’ve received over the last few weeks, we’ve compiled some answers to frequently asked alligator questions.

Why are there so many alligators at Bird Rookery Swamp?

Bird Rookery Swamp is prime amazing fantastic Grade-A alligator habitat. It’s like an alligator gated community. Some of the neighbors keep to themselves, some live in the way back where it’s pretty private, and others like to walk around in their front yards and yell about HOA regulations.

Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the idea.

The CREW Project is 60,000-acres and is first and foremost land preserved for water, and second land preserved for wildlife. And Bird Rookery Swamp does a great job holding water and housing alligators. Who then meet up with other alligators and, well – you know the rest.

Why don’t you have rangers there to warn people about the alligators?

Let’s do a CREW Trust two-sentence refresher:

The CREW Land & Water Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization that is part of the greater CREW Project. We provide environmental education at the three (soon to be four) trail systems within the CREW Project.

What isn’t in that sentence? We – the CREW Trust- do not own the land. There is no fee to access the public lands that are owned and managed by South Florida Water Management District. So, no rangers. We do have FWC law enforcement that patrol within the 60,000-acre project. But, again, no paid rangers.

We do have volunteers who are on the trails during programs and as trail stewards, but with around 40-volunteers, we do not have someone permanently stationed at Bird Rookery Swamp to inform folks about alligators.

 

Where can I find information about the alligators at Bird Rookery Swamp?

In the parking lot. At the kiosk. At the second kiosk at the end of the shell path before you turn onto the boardwalk. At the talking trail post on the boardwalk. AND at the end of the boardwalk before you step down onto the grassy tram.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, South Florida Water Management District and the CREW Trust have multiple signs, starting in the parking lot, that offer information about alligators and what to do when in their presence.

(That’s kind of important right there- what should HUMANS do in presence of alligators – because humans are walking into the homes of the alligators and not vice versa)

FWC has fantastic alligator resources! Please check a few of these out:

Wildlife Viewing Ethics

Living with Alligators

What should I do if an alligator is laying on the path and blocking my way?

Try saying “Hey Susan move over!”

If that doesn’t work, and it probably won’t even if the alligator is named Susan, you have to either turn around and go back the way you came or have a seat and wait. (This is a good time to remind you to pack water and snacks if you go to Bird Rookery Swamp).

Because of how the Bird Rookery Swamp trail is shaped – a number 9 – there really is only one way out and one way in, so an alligator sunning itself across the tram can create quite a long day for a group of hikers.

BUT.

You cannot throw rocks at the alligator or poke it with a stick. It is illegal to harass an alligator and this is regulated by FWC Law Enforcement.

Will alligators bite me or my dog or my children?

We do not have any record of such incidents occurring and we would like to keep it that way.

A great resource for answers to this question, and more related to alligators and biting, is the FWC human-alligator incident fact sheet.

A few notable excerpts from that fact sheet:

  • ” Be aware of the possible presence of alligators when in or near fresh or brackish water.
  • Negative alligator encounters may occur when people do not pay close attention to their
    surroundings when working or recreating near water.
  • Closely supervise children when they are playing in or around water
  • Observe and photograph alligators only from a safe distance. Remember, they are an
    important part of Florida’s natural history as well as an integral component of freshwater
    ecosystems.
  • Leave alligators alone. State law prohibits killing, harassing or possessing alligators
    except under permit.
  • Never remove an alligator from its natural habitat or accept one as a pet.”

And probably the most important take-away from the FWC fact sheet:

The likelihood of a Florida resident being seriously injured during an unprovoked alligator incident in Florida is roughly only one in 3.2 million. 

 

I do not feel comfortable with the large number of alligators at Bird Rookery Swamp. What can I do about this?

One of the best things about Southwest Florida is that we have so many great places to walk and experience nature. A primitive trail system where humans are directly sharing space with native wildlife may not be for everyone, and we understand that.

If you would like to increase your comfort level, we encourage you to sign up for one of our guided walks with a volunteer naturalist at Bird Rookery Swamp. Or visit the CREW Marsh Trails or Cypress Dome Trails which have significantly less alligators.

If you would prefer to hike someplace that does not share the trail directly with wildlife, we encourage you to explore other trails in the area, such as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Gordon River Greenway and Naples Preserve.

Volunteers remove tires, carpet and more from Flint Pen Strand

As the South Florida Water Management nears completion of the Southern Critical CREW Restoration Project, the CREW Trust, in partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District held the second clean-up of this year at Flint Pen Strand.

CREW Trust staff, FWC biologists and SFWMD staff were joined by FGCU students, CREW Trust volunteers, volunteers from Passarella & Associates Inc. and community volunteers on Thursday, March 22, 2018.

During the four-hour clean-up, volunteers worked to collect garbage including discarded carpet, tile, toilets and more to fill a 30-yard dumpster. They also worked to remove 650 tires which had been dumped through the years in the vacant lands.

Special thanks to Keep Lee County Beautiful for providing work gloves and trash bags and thank you to Lee County Solid Waste for donating the cost of removing all of the tires.

CREW Trust volunteers worked earlier this year to create a 1.5-mile loop as the first trail in Flint Pen Strand. The parking lot and trail system will open in 2018 and more information will be released as the opening gets closer. Follow CREW Land & Water Trust for updates on the Flint Pen Strand Trails and opening plans.

Trail conditions at the newly-reopened Bird Rookery Swamp

Oh, hello people. Where’ve you been?

Thank you everyone for all of the happy comments on our blog, in our inboxes, in private messages an Facebook and in comments on social media. We’re just as excited as you are that Bird Rookery Swamp is finally open!

The closure wasn’t just hard on staff, or our visitors. It was really hard on our volunteers. Many of them started volunteering with us because they visited Bird Rookery Swamp so often and feel a connection to that trail system and the flora and fauna that call it home.

As soon as it opened, our BRS regulars hit the trails and sent us happy selfies, trail condition reports and photos.

Volunteer Peter Davis, an avid cyclist who leads a private buided bike tour that is exclusively offered at our silent auction each year, sent us this trail conditions report aimed mainly at cyclists – but it’s great information for those hikers that like to do the whole almost-13 mile loop.

A summary of Peter Davis’ report from 3/12/2018
–  Work by the South Florida Water Management District’s contractor has improved portions of the trail that needed attention prior to the hurricane. 
–  The trail is in relatively good condition for cycling up until the fork at approximately mile 2.
–  Around mile 3 and onward the trail gets softer and there are sections of tall grass and other plants that make it hard to see the trail below the vegetation in some areas.
–  There are no places that require a water crossing, no large trees down, and no places where the mud is too deep the get through.  
–  Accomplished cyclists with wider tires on their bike should be able to do the whole trail without stopping or dismounting if they choose to do so.  
–  As usual, there are many alligators sunning themselves on the trail.  Note from staff: always keep a safe distance from wildlife; to read more on ethically viewing wildlife, visit http://myfwc.com/viewing/how/ethics/.
–  The wildlife viewing seems much better than in the past both in terms of quantity and quality.
–  Between mile 8 and 9.5 there are some deeper mud/water holes on the trail that are hard to see in the vegetation so please use caution.
–  Anyone planning to turn around should go counter-clockwise, as the most difficult trail sections start about a mile to the left of the fork.
Don’t forget you can sign up for our free weekly guided walks at Bird Rookery Swamp, offered each Wednesday at 9 a.m. through the end of March! Sign up on eventbrite.com. And we look forward to seeing you on the trails!
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