Fort De Soto Park, known for its white beaches and tourist appeal, is about to become the subject of yearlong study that could unearth pieces of its past.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will search the park for buried World War II-era ordnance that could include bullets, bombs and rockets.
Anything recovered will likely be inert. Mullet Key Bombing and Gunnery Range was a test bombing site, meaning live rounds were used sparingly. In 1948, the U.S. Army sold the land to Pinellas County and, after it was deemed safe for visitors, became the county's largest park. But there's a chance that remnants of its military days are buried in Fort De Soto's beaches, forests or keys.
"There's always the possibility we could find something live, something still functional, so that's kind of why we're out here," project manager Frank Araico said.
The study is funded by the Department of Defense's Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sites. About 700 of these sites exist in Florida, Araico said.
Surveyors began near Arrowhead Picnic Area on Tuesday, cutting through dense brush with machetes as they established lines the corps will later sweep with high-powered metal detectors. Searches will extend into the water around the keys, and later this fall, specially trained dogs will search other designated areas. The corps will develop a plan for cleanup or removal this year based on what is found during the sweeps.
But as they search, they'll keep Fort De Soto's unique ecosystem in mind.
"Something that we worked really hard to incorporate with the project was a concern for the environmental resources," Susan Burtnett, a contractor with the corps, said. Biologists will work to identify the best way to sweep without harming native species like the gopher tortoise.
During World War II, the park's north beach and Arrowhead Picnic Area were practice bombing grounds where sand-filled duds were dropped onto targets. The east beach and the water beyond it were used similarly. A beach near Mullet Key was a target for aerial machine gunners.
Live explosives were only dropped on Bonne Fortuna Key, an area that's closed to the public. That's the spot where in 1988 a maintenance worker using a backhoe discovered a 250-pound live bomb buried under mud and water. The site was evacuated, the bomb was detonated and little was left but a 15-foot-deep crater.
Later that year, a 500-pound bomb and several other fragments were found near Arrowhead Picnic Area. The rounds weren't live, and the beaches were evacuated and cleared.
Araico acknowledged there has been some history of discoveries in the area, but he emphasized that many reports of findings turn out to be just rumors. Visiting the park is safe, he said.
"People have been out here for 50 years, and nobody's blown up, so I wouldn't worry about that," Araico said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at [email protected] On Twitter: @clairelwiseman