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Tour shows off renewed wetlands

Bad news about the environment is not hard to come by these days as Florida grows rapidly and new construction destroys natural areas every day. But Saturday, Tampa Bay residents have a chance to see the other side of the story.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars are spent restoring wetlands and marshes destroyed by construction.

And each year, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council conducts a tour of some of the area restoration projects, giving residents a chance to see their tax dollars at work. This year's tour will take place Saturday.

"The intent is to not only bring all the scientists together that are involved but also to let the citizens see what's going on out there," said Peter Clark, executive director of the regional planning agency.

About 35 people tagged along for the tour last year, Clark said, and planners expect more this year.

The tour will begin at 9 a.m. and will take participants through seven restoration projects in northeast St. Petersburg. At each site, a scientist involved in the restoration will explain what was done and why.

More than half of Florida's wetlands, 56 percent, have been lost to growth and development. As the wetlands disappear, so do animals, birds and fish that rely on the unique marshy habitat to feed and raise their young.

"In the Tampa Bay area, we've lost a large portion of our wetland communities," Clark said. "We've also lost the wildlife that live and use those communities."

Not only that, but wetlands act as giant water filters, cleaning pollutants from stormwater runoff before it reaches the lakes and bays. More development means more pollutants, but less wetland area to help keep natural bodies of water clean.

Developers now are required to replace any wetlands they destroy, acre for acre. That often means creating a new wetland on a different site.

At the same time, state agencies are spending thousands of tax dollars each year to restore wetlands destroyed or marred by development activity.

Saturday's field trip will visit both types of projects.

Clark said planners not only want residents to see how their tax dollars are being spent, but to help evaluate how the newly created wetlands are working. Several recent studies by state agencies and environmental groups have pointed out that artificial wetlands are failing to mimic natural wetlands.

"That's one reason that not only are the different scientists around the region going out to take a look at the different sites but why we want to bring citizens out to take a look at these man-made systems to see how well they're working," Clark said.

No advance notice is required to participate in Saturday's field trip. Participants should meet at 9 a.m. on the east side of the Kmart parking lot at the corner of M.L. King (Ninth) Street and 94th Avenue N.

Participants should bring their own lunch and drinks, mosquito spray, suntan lotion and old shoes or boots.

For more information, call the planning council at 577-5151.