SEMINOLE — Officials at St. Petersburg College knew they'd have to clear out a few invasive plants when they decided to build a wildlife habitat and environmental center on the Seminole campus.
But "a few" has turned out to be an extensive clearing that has passers-by and neighbors turning their heads and wondering if the wetlands are being demolished to make way for a dormitory or some other college building.
"That is not demolition," said Jim Olliver, provost of the Seminole campus. "We're removing the exotic invasives. … This is an enhancement to the site."
The college called in experts from Pinellas County to identify the bad plants and to help obtain a $167,836 grant from the Florida Bureau of Invasive Plant Management to pay for the clearing.
Debbie Chayet, a grants specialist from the county's culture, education and leisure department, agreed that the 63- to 65-acre site does appear to be decimated.
"The area's got a lot of invasives in it, unfortunately," Chayet said. "It may look like a lot's been done but we've been very careful to make sure only the invasive species have been hit."
Chayet said 28 invasive plant species were found on the property, including Brazilian peppers, chinaberry trees and Chinese tallow.
"It was a pretty diverse amount of invasives," she said.
But farther back, she said, "some really nice native vegetation" can be found, including oak trees and orchids. Those are the kind of plants the college and county want to encourage. They're hoping that the clearing, which should last through the next few months, will do that by removing the shady canopy that's choking out sun-loving native species.
The prospect for success seems good. Chayet said that in some cleared areas, native plants like maples and elderberries are already sprouting.
The return of the native plants is expected to take about a year, said Jon White, an SPC engineer who's working on the project. For now the land will lie fallow while nature takes its course. Once the entire project is complete, White said, there will be an environmental center and boardwalk that can be used for classes and opened to the public as a nature walk and educational center.
In the meantime, it's not just plants, neighbors and passers-by who are being affected. It's also the wetlands residents: rabbits, snakes, migratory birds and some larger critters, like coyotes and feral pigs.
That's what the city of Seminole hears about. Mark Ely, head of the development department, said officials have gotten calls from college neighbors asking, "Do you understand the amount of wildlife that is fleeing?"
It makes sense, Ely said, that creatures would flee the commotion on the "beast-sized property."
But Chayet said the animals really aren't fleeing, they're just moving from one place to another as workers clear a spot and will readjust once the commotion dies down. And it's not necessarily the clearing that's pushing creatures totally off-site.
"A lot of the wildlife that is there moves around pretty much anyway," Chayet said.
Ely agreed that the city has gotten reports in the past about the resident coyote and feral pigs that come out and root in homeowners' lawns.
But, Ely said, that's all part of nature: "Hey, what's a feral pig going to do?"