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Officials imagine an oasis of learning

SPJC faculty members hope the park the county intends to build will provide a rich knowledge of nature for students and the public.

They waded into the urban wilderness, well-sprayed with insect repellent.

Faculty members from St. Petersburg Junior College tramped through ferns, gazed at slash pines, squinted at spiders. And then tried to figure out how students and the public can use what they saw.

The county is moving quickly to build a series of boardwalks and a nature center on property owned by SPJC, adjacent to the college's Seminole buildings. The nature park, expected to be complete in about two years, will be open to the public, but it also will be used for educational purposes by the college.

So Parks Director Diana Kyle wants the faculty to help design it, hence the tour a few days ago for about 10 teachers.

Kyle led the way, giving a short course on the flora and fauna and a glimpse of what residents will see once the park is complete.

As she walked, Kyle pointed to the uprooted ground beneath the carpet of pine needles and huge pine cones. "There's a lot of hog damage right now," she said. "We'll need to trap the hogs and armadillos out there."

Kyle said she spent three hours walking the park recently and saw the rooting all over the 40-acre wooded area. She didn't see a feral hog, she said, but thinks the damage may come from a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig turned loose there.

She also suspects a bobcat lives in the pine forest.

Kyle narrated the types of trees. "There's a bay tree. You can see the silver leaves," she said. "Now, throughout the state of Florida, all the bay trees have their leaves folded up like that. It's easy to spot a bay head."

Then she showed them ferns, adding that the ground around the ferns should be wet in non-drought conditions. "When you're walking in ferns, you shouldn't crunch," she said. Then, she found a fern frond with hundreds of spores attached to the back. "These are really cool to look at under a microscope."

At a wax myrtle, Kyle broke a leaf and passed it around. "The Indians used to take this plant and break the leaves and crinkle them up and spread it over their body, and they swear it repels mosquitoes."

She explained that a laurel oak's leaves are shaped like a spear and a live oak's like a boat. She pointed out a male golden orb spider, telling the teachers that the male is smaller and gets eaten by the female after mating. And she reminded them to look for snakes before stepping over a branch.

"We are in the woods, you guys," she called back.

At a cabbage palm, Kyle said, "This is our state tree. Really it should be called our state grass because it's not a tree at all. . . . This is a really good specimen for teaching purposes."

Under a red maple, Kyle highlighted "some really cool mosses from a teaching point of view. . . . Anybody see any really good lichens on the side of trees? It looks like gray paint or pink paint."

She also pointed out the things that need to go, the exotic Brazilian peppers and some exotic palms.

Kyle urged the faculty members to organize groups of students to begin clearing the exotic plants. "A group of six can wipe out a lot of stuff in a short period of time," she said.

Traffic noise from 113th Street filtered through the trees, but, a few yards in, all sight of civilization was lost. "Okay, anybody have a GPS?" someone joked.

It might not have been a bad idea to have brought a compass or a global positioning system. After about 30 minutes, thinking it was moving north through the property, the group found that it had circled back to the spot where it started.

"We made a fairly small loop," Kyle said. "I would have sworn we were walking north."

Still, Kyle said the group had a chance to see a good sample of the property's assets.

She also pointed out ways she thought of for the land to be incorporated into studies. For example, students could bore into a slash pine to learn to find a tree's age. Areas could be roped off for experiments on the effects of a burn (once the drought ends).

The five small lakes the college is digging on the edge of the pristine area could be used to study plankton. Students could gather excrement from owls or other animals to study their diets, she said, or they could gather bones from dead animals for study.

The faculty members had several suggestions.

John T. Vaughan, who teaches field biology, wanted to know if the county could build an observation platform. Kyle said she would ask the engineers for a cost estimate and suggested location.

There is no cost estimate for the park yet. Engineers will come up with that once there is a preliminary design. The county will pay for the improvements from the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax revenue.

Claude Hilliard, who teaches biology and oceanography, wanted to know how the plants were going to be identified for the public who walked through.

Kyle said she would expect signs to talk more about each habitat than individual plants, but she said she could envision having a series of brochures, designed for different audiences, available to guide people through. SPJC students could even be involved in producing those brochures, she said.

Ross Brightman, who teaches biology and other sciences, said he would like to see small areas selectively cleared to show the way a clear field progresses as it develops first wild flowers, then pine trees, then oaks.

The completed park will be encircled by a 6-foot black vinyl fence for security, Kyle said, but faculty will be able to have after-hours access for activities.

Vaughan said he often takes students from his classes to Sawgrass Lake Park or Boyd Hill Nature Park in St. Petersburg for field work. He is excited about the possibilities of this park, he said.

"It has the potential to be a fantastic facility to students from the field aspects of biology," he said. "I think it's exciting to have the opportunity to participate in some of the planning. . . . It provides the opportunity to do it right . . . for educational purposes."

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