Peter Stangel made his first trip to Pinellas County about a year ago and found it just as he expected.
"My first impression was here's traditional Florida: One strip mall after another and highly developed beach areas," said Stangel, a regional director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Then his tour guide, a county administrator in charge of coordinating the county's first bird watching festival, took him to some of the county's parks. Stangel's perspective began to change.
"You might not be able to spy them while you're flying down the highway, but there are some fantastic natural sites in the county," said Stangel, who works out of the foundation's Atlanta office.
Now, Stangel hopes to use Pinellas County as a model on "how you blend together lots of people and a desire to preserve a natural habitat."
The idea that the state's most crowded, overbuilt county might stand as a leader in the environmental movement might seem a little odd at first.
One way to look at it is that those seemingly endless stretches of black top and concrete from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs give people a better incentive to save what little green space is left.
That's the thinking behind a new partnership between the county and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, one of the country's largest environmental organizations.
In one of the first programs of its kind, the county and the foundation have created a non-profit foundation to preserve and manage Pinellas' natural habitat.
Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers, who helped develop the idea, says the purpose of the Pinellas County Environmental Foundation will be to raise tax-deductible contributions from private corporations and individuals and to solicit federal and state grants.
The foundation, in turn, will award grants to organizations interested in enhancing the county's existing environmental programs, as well as creating new ones.
"There may be a little irony in it. Maybe the community is more responsive because we are crowded," Stowers said. "Maybe we value these green pieces much more because we are crowded."
Pinellas voters have supported environmental programs through the years, from a sales tax in the 1970s that preserved mangrove areas in Tampa Bay to the two Penny for Pinellas referendums of recent years that, among other things, provided money to buy and preserve wildlife habitat.
Those areas offer residents somewhere to escape the urban sprawl.
Take a hike through the Booker Creek Preserve and all of a sudden the strip malls and bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. 19 seem a million miles away. Or ride the ferry to Caladesi Island and see what the beach was like before the condos, motels and tourist shops.
Stowers hopes that the foundation can begin reviewing grant applications by April. As he envisions it, the projects can range from helping pay for a school project to setting up an interactive learning center at a county park.
As an example, he and Stangel cite a $50,000 grant that the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation recently awarded Tampa Baywatch. The Clearwater-based conservation group will use the grant to establish sea grass nurseries in several high schools. The grasses grown at the schools will be transplanted to Tampa Bay.
After the Pinellas County Environmental Foundation starts raising money, a nine-person advisory board will review grant applications and forward the list of proposed projects to the national foundation, which will make the final decision.
Stangel says the partnership will plug the county into the national foundation's other partnerships with federal and state agencies, as well as its large network of corporate contributors.
"What we, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation can do for Pinellas County is bring expertise from national and international sources," Stangel said.
The national foundation, for example, would know whether a federal agency with preservation money would be a perfect match for a county program.
"We know what's going on in Pinellas and we know what's going on with the federal agency," Stangel said. "We have our feelers out all the time."
For more information
For more information about the Pinellas County Environmental Foundation, contact Peter Stangel, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Southeast Partnership Office, 1875 Century Blvd., Suite 200, Atlanta, GA 30345 or by phone at (404) 679-7099. Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers can be reached at 464-3485.