You have to fight the traffic on busy East Bay Drive to get to Largo Central Park Nature Preserve, which is smack in the middle of built-out Largo. But once you enter the place and begin exploring its depths, it's like you've slipped into another world.
"It is absolutely isolated. You get total quiet," says Pat Edmond, president of Friends of Largo Nature Parks. "A lot of people probably don't even know it's there."
These days, visitors can venture deeper into the preserve than ever. Earlier this year, a significant part of it reopened after being closed to the public for years. It's the first time since 2008 that people can visit the observation tower and nearby walking paths toward the back of the park.
They were closed due to arsenic contamination. Largo was forced to remove and replace several inches of soil around the tower, which had been identified as an "arsenic hot spot." The city will start digging up a few more spots of contaminated soil next month, but federal and state regulators are satisfied that the entire preserve is safe for visitors.
Located southeast of Largo Central Park, the 31-acre preserve is teeming with wildlife. More than 100 species of birds live there as well as otters, alligators, foxes, rabbits, bats and wild turkeys.
It can get pretty hot this time of year. Aside from a boardwalk that circles a lake, the trails are largely unshaded. Right now, most visitors are walking the preserve early or late in the day. It's open from 6:30 a.m. until an hour before sunset, so in the summer it closes shortly before 7:30 p.m.
"The park has its diehard users. Every park gets busier when it's cooler," said Largo parks superintendent Greg Brown. "There's an amazing amount of nature in there."
"It's a wonderful place for birders," added Edmond, who's nominating the preserve to be added to the Great Florida Birding Trail. "There's a huge number of birds that use it as a temporary nesting place on their migratory path."
Even during this slow time of year, a number of developments are happening at the nature preserve at the same time:
• The city is interviewing applicants for a position as a part-time grounds maintenance worker who will tend to the nature preserve. Largo commissioners recently agreed to spend an additional $22,700 a year for the new position, since the entire preserve is now open.
• The city will soon remove a walkway that juts into the center of the park's lake. The floating dock broke away from a fixed boardwalk due to high waters during recent heavy rains.
• A local Boy Scout, 12-year-old Selden Myers of Largo, plans to finish his Eagle Scout project this week, equipping the park with a dozen signs bearing QR codes. Visitors will be able to use smartphones to learn more about a dozen trees in the preserve. For those without smartphones, brochures will be available.
• Lastly, the city of Largo plans to begin removing more soil with high arsenic levels within the next few weeks.
Arsenic in park
Parts of the nature preserve used to be a landfill, so it has long been the subject of environmental testing. Arsenic was found throughout the preserve at varying levels. Officials think some of the contamination may be from naturally occurring background levels or past uses.
The DEP had the city dig up contaminated soil around the observation tower, where tests found levels of arsenic more than 11 times higher than Florida's target level for cleanup of arsenic in industrial areas. The tower was built from pretreated lumber, and sawdust from its construction has been mentioned as a possible source of the contamination.
Arsenic can be toxic, but the likelihood and degree of harm is related to exposure, experts say. The mere presence of arsenic does not mean there's a health risk.
"There are a handful of small areas where we have to remove some additional soil. But we don't have any reason to close the park," said Largo city engineer Leland Dicus. "It's a passive park, so you're walking on the trails. The soil with higher arsenic levels is off the trails."
Regular users say they are comfortable it's safe.
"The city couldn't have opened it otherwise. The DEP would never have allowed it," said Edmond.
Someday when the city can afford it, parks officials hope to construct a boardwalk linking Largo Central Park to the nature preserve. In the meantime, Edmond just hopes the city will have enough money to maintain the preserve's restrooms and boardwalk.
The nature preserve also has a kayak launch, catch-and-release fishing and more than 40 interpretive displays. But the real attraction is the wildlife, the isolation and the quiet.
"There's a difference between parks and preserves," Edmond said. "Parks are for people. Preserves are for animals."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.