EAST LAKE — Pinellas County is getting ready to celebrate the acquisition of 871 acres north of Keystone Road and the addition of most of it to the Brooker Creek Preserve, now more than 8,700 acres.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, county officials invite you to celebrate the Wilde tract purchase and National Trails Day at the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center, 3940 Keystone Road.
Highlights of the event will include former Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis being honored for his role in the land purchasing effort, interpretive bus tours of the new preserve land, live music, demonstrations and a family trail scavenger hunt.
Officials also hope residents will visit the education center, watch the holographic-like movie about the history of the preserve and get out on the trails.
The American Hiking Society's National Trails Day celebrates the great outdoors, said Bruce Rinker, division director of the county's environmental lands division.
"The whole idea is to get hundreds of our citizens away from their computer screens and outdoors on Saturday to enjoy the natural world of Florida," Rinker said.
But if you can't walk the trails, "sit under a tree and enjoy a beautiful vista," he said.
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For many years, the county dreamed of adding the Wilde tract to the Brooker Creek Preserve. Except for 100 acres of the purchase reserved for possible future ball fields, that dream is now a reality.
It didn't come easy. Just ask the county real estate coordinator who sealed the deal.
In 2000, the county hired Mike Nahat, a licensed real estate broker with a background in parks and recreation, to purchase environmental and park lands like the Wall Springs Park additions.
One of his goals was to complete potential wildlife corridors, like the tracts of land that now provide a corridor from the preserve to the Anclote River.
Another elusive goal was to purchase the Wilde tract, an active wellfield, and encourage other counties to buy land that would provide a wildlife corridor stretching from Pinellas through Hillsborough and Pasco to the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. First, he needed a commitment from the county to buy the Pinellas part of the corridor.
"We couldn't quite get it together until Hillsborough bought their side and then Fred (Marquis) was back here," Nahat said.
It also helped when former Commissioner Bob Stewart asked Marquis when Pinellas was going to buy its part of the Wilde tract at a commission meeting. That was all Marquis, a proponent of preserving environmental lands, needed to hear. He set Nahat loose and the real estate coordinator organized teams of county employees to work on various issues related to the purchase.
"Once I knew that there was a commitment on the county side," Nahat said, "I knew that I would negotiate a deal."
After a lot of preparation and then two months of hard negotiations, a deal was struck last July and the purchase closed in November.
The price was about $17.4 million, all to come from 2010 to 2020 Penny for Pinellas funds.
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The 871-acre Wilde property is an active wellfield, but it is also a diverse patchwork of habitats that supports a great variety of wildlife living there or just passing through.
Lisa Baltus, Pinellas' north county environmental lands manager, said the county plans to restore some of the land with forest to provide better habitat for traveling animals and maybe even put in an underpass on Keystone Road for them.
About 18 percent of the land is wetlands.
There are oak hammock, cypress domes, grassy marshes, pine flatwoods, pasture that will be restored to pine flatwoods and sandhill habitat. Cows still roam on many acres and 36 acres are planted with juice oranges.
The county will have to take a good look at the natural resources on the property before making a plan, Baltus said, but there are some actions that will be taken.
Wetlands will be restored. Fire breaks will go in where there are natural areas — the state's Department of Forestry has done some controlled burns already.
Besides the scenery, there are many other reasons to hop on the bus and take a tour: lots of wild as well as domestic life.
On the tract Wednesday, there were pocket gophers, gopher tortoises, sandhill cranes, a fox squirrel, cardinals, vultures, a great blue heron, a bald eagle nest and more.
On the agricultural side, there were lots of cows and their calves.
In a grove of twisted oak trees, Baltus looked intently into the branches.
"If I lose my job, this is where I'm going feral, right in there," she kidded. "Perfect tree house trees."
"Yeah, I love this section," Nahat said. "Enchanted forest."