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Welcome to Fantasy classroom

A 4-acre island made out of sand and rock dredged from the bottom of the bay will be turned into an outdoor classroom for teaching about wild Florida plants.

The Florida Aquarium and Tampa Port Authority plan to replace exotic species with native Florida plants and build a dock, nature trails and a teaching pavilion on Fantasy Island in Hillsborough Bay.

The port board agreed Tuesday to jump-start the project with a $50,000 loan. Tampa Electric Co. will contribute up to $150,000 for the construction, port and aquarium officials said.

By late fall, the island should be ready for visits from school groups and other visitors, said Ilze Berzins, the aquarium's director of animal health, conservation and research.

Educational programs will focus on the importance of natural habitats, the hazards of non-native species to Florida and how wildlife can live side by side with industry, she said.

"A lot of people don't know what's in their own back yard, even people who have lived in Tampa for 20 years," Berzins said.

Fantasy Island and two much larger islands, dubbed 2-D and 3-D, were created south of the port 20 years ago with material dug from the bay bottom in a federal project to deepen and widen shipping channels in Tampa Bay.

The larger islands became vital breeding grounds for rare bird species such as Caspian terns and oyster catchers. Port officials try to discourage recreational boaters from going ashore and disturbing the wildlife.

But Fantasy Island doesn't have sandy beaches that attract nesting birds. Port and aquarium officials decided it would be an ideal educational stop for the tour boat they share.

The first step is removing exotic plants such as Brazilian pepper trees that have overrun the island, Berzins said. Then, volunteers will plant native Florida species such as cabbage palms and sea grapes.

The work will be paid for from a trust fund established with fines Cargill Fertilizer paid for a 1988 acid spill that killed millions of fish in the Alafia River, said David Parsche, the port's environmental director.

But the fund can only reimburse agencies for projects they pay for upfront, he said. The port agreed to put up $50,000 so the plantings can be completed during the summer rainy season.

A Tampa Electric spokesman said the company is part of the project but declined to confirm that it has committed money.

"It's a really exciting project and we're involved," spokesman Ross Bannister said. "It's just a little early to tell anybody about it."

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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