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Nature flourishes quietly in Upper Tampa Bay Park

Even after a decade, it's one of Hillsborough County's best-kept secrets.

Some would say it has the best fishing in the region and a healthy variety of Florida plants and animals to boot. But many neighbors and tourists alike don't know about this haven and pass right by on their way to Busch Gardens or the zoo.

The small, sleepy-eyed brown owl that points the way to Upper Tampa Bay Park blends in so well with the trees on W Hillsborough Avenue that even people who live near the park don't know it's there _ much less that it's celebrating its 10th anniversary Saturday.

"People come in who say they've lived in the area for years and never knew we were here until they got stuck in traffic and saw the sign," said park ranger Brad Shepherd. "They say we're the best-kept secret in Hillsborough County."

Park attractions might not include roaring lions or reeling roller coasters, but visitors can pet a 5-foot snake, learn about "walking trees" at the Nature Center, collect a cooler filled with crabs, oysters and catfish, or catch a glimpse of an American bald eagle or two.

And all before the mosquitoes start biting and without standing in lines.

"This is such a beautiful area, and people could learn a lot about the environment," said visitor Jayme Pecci of Clearwater. "But they need a bigger sign and advertisement. The sign at the entrance is obscured by the sign for the Baptist church."

On Saturday the park will celebrate its 10th anniversary and retire the owl for a new sign and logo featuring a tall, white bird with a black bill called the snowy egret, one of the park's trademarks.

Park manager Skip Denham said that bringing more attention to the park and its environmental programs is one of the reasons for the new sign. More than 80,000 people come to the park every year, many of them first-time visitors.

"We get about 1,200 people a week," Denham said, adding that park employees travel to give educational presentations to another 20,000 people every year.

Upper Tampa Bay Park is on a 596-acre peninsula bordered by Double Branch Creek and Old Tampa Bay. The park was built to preserve the environmentally sensitive land and to teach visitors about the local environment.

Denham said the county owns about 4 square miles around the park, but less than 4 percent is developed.

"This was a large chunk of undeveloped land when the county bought it in 1976," he said. Denham is glad the land will stay pristine.

"The high-rises you see in the distance are going to stay in the distance," he said.

Even in building the park, efforts were made to disturb as little of the environment as possible. The park's 135 parking spaces are not paved, and the only concrete in the park is around the picnic area and the Nature Center. Non-profit organizations are allowed to camp overnight, but they have to pack everything they use and leave no trace of their visit.

"The park was built in a way not to hurt the pine flatlands or the marshes and other wetlands," Ranger Gail Rosenblum said. "It's been called the jewel of Hillsborough County."

Everything in the park, from pine cones to snakeskins, is protected. Regulations prohibit feeding or capturing wildlife, picking flowers and removing rocks or other objects, except fish, she said.

Many interesting items children find in the park are placed on a "touch table" in the Nature Center, including an abandoned skin from a red-legged tarantula.

The Nature Center, one of the park's biggest attractions, also features burr fish, fiddler crabs and several dozen other kinds of common Florida marine life in its 24 saltwater aquariums.

Rosenblum said the center's biggest hit is the snake exhibit.

"We have eight different kinds of snakes, and we tell everyone when and why they bite and that snakes are good, without them we would be overrun with mice and rats," she said.

Two-year-old Michael Afflixio of Tampa certainly seemed impressed.

"He jumped. Eat, eat!" Michael said, as he pointed at a racer snake eating a lizard for lunch.

Seven rangers and a group of volunteers lead guided tours through the park and give hands-on presentations in Hillsborough County schools. The Girl Scouts of America and several other organizations gave the park plaques in appreciation of its educational programs.

"When you bring out a 6-foot snake in a classroom, you get attention," Rosenblum said.

Hillsborough Community College also holds marine biology and ecology courses in a classroom adjacent to the Nature Center.

Youth volunteer Kevin Wanner, 15, said children and adults of all ages respect the park and its sensitive environment.

"The best thing about this park is that it's the only one that really preserves nature," he said.

The park's anniversary festivities begin at 8 a.m. Saturday and include guided canoe trips and tours on the three nature trails. From 1 to 3 p.m. Dennis Blakely of Denny B's Bait and Tackle will give fishing tips and answer questions about what's biting and when.