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He left his land wild, and it rewarded him

Published Sep. 29, 2005

When Glenn Johnston bought his Cracker house and 3 acres on Lake Le Clare in 1953, he mostly left things alone.

When he came back after 17 years away, it was a dense jungle. But Johnston just cleared out a space for his trailer and otherwise let nature be.

"The people around here, they liked the fishing," he said. "If you cleared anything out, they said you'd ruin the fishing."

No scientists back then snooped around Lake Le Clare. Folks measured the lake's clarity when they squinted into the depths seeking bass. They tested water quality by the mouthful.

Yet Glenn Johnston and his country neighbors were ahead of their time.

The cord grasses and ferns and cat-tails they tolerated along their shoreline were nature's stewards of the lake. They rigorously filtered the rain water as it trickled toward the fish. And the fishing was good.

Today Lake Le Clare has more lakefront homes, including a small subdivision next to Johnston. Many builders and property owners ripped out the shoreline weeds and planted grass lawns. One poured a sand beach.

At 84, Johnston mourns the change. "The fishing is not near as good as it used to be," he said.

Scientific studies are piling up to explain Johnston's observations. Lake experts are finding that turf speeds the flow of rainwater and pollutants into the lake. The pollutants include fertilizer and pesticides that are applied to maintain the lawn. Without aquatic plants to absorb the fertilizer, it can cause algae to flourish. As algae dies off, the bacteria that feed on it consume underwater oxygen that fish need.

Consequently, local lake experts are considering a package of stiffer regulations that would require new lakefront developments, among other things, to retain their natural vegetation for 50 feet inland.

Just as Johnston and his son Art have done for years.

The previous owner had planted grass. But when Johnston left Florida to pursue welding work during the 1950s and '60s, nature took care of the grass. The property's canopy of oaks and cypress thickened to where it choked away the sunlight the lawn needed. In its place, graceful ferns grew thigh-high by the thousand.

Art Johnston, 54, who maintains the property now, uses a dirt path to get to the water. When it gets muddy, he pours down wood chips, ground from his own dead trees.

Scientists would approve, calling this a "permeable surface" that filters rainwater instead of bouncing it away.

Johnston's dock is narrow and wooden, letting limited sunlight and rain onto the plants and water underneath.

"I always thought I'd rather have it wild," said the father. "But I always had a feeling that it would build up."

He shook his head at the scene down the lake shore.

"All they wanted was big, beautiful houses," he said of his neighbors. "But what they wanted was a polyester lawn, a manicured lawn."