Peace and tranquility reign at Manatee County's new Neal Preserve

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 31, 2014 

MANATEE -- Birds flash past. Mangroves sway in the breeze. Waves lap the shore.

Peace and tranquility reign at Manatee County's new Neal Preserve, slated for its grand opening April 9.

From its observation tower you can see traffic lined up at the Anna Maria Island Bridge but the 120-acre preserve remains quiet.

The land at 12301 Manatee Ave. W. is historically significant: Native cultures thrived in the area between 3,000 B.C.--1,000 A.D., according to archeologist Bill Burger, a county consultant who worked on development of the preserve.

At one time, burial sites in the area sheltered hundreds of bodies of native peoples. In the winter of 1933-34, archeologists from the federal Civil Works Administration, assisted by Smithsonian Institution researchers, dug up the remains of more than 200 people.

"They're in the collections at the Smithsonian," said Burger. "Human remains are not displayed in any institution with any federal connection."

Under terms of federal law, recognized tribes can claim such remains but the native peoples who once occupied Manatee County's coastline are thought to have become extinct by the mid-1700s, he said.

So, the corpses remain in storage, he said.

Some Manatee County artifacts such as pottery shards were also sent to the Smithsonian, but are not on display there because most were not intact, Burger said.

"They're there for comparative study by archeologists," he said.

The entire site is one large, living history museum, said Melissa Nell, manager for the Volunteer and Education Division of the Parks and Natural Resources Department.

The preserve features two types of mounds: Middens, or trash mounds made up of shells and fish bones, and burial mounds, which held bodies, said Nell.

Artifacts such as tools and pottery date from 300 B.C. to 100 A.D., she said.

She emphasized everything on the grounds is protected by law.

"Removing any artifact is illegal," she said.

Though the original burial mounds no longer exist, county preservation efforts involve creating demonstration mounds.

"When we acquired the property, the mounds were gone, but in order to preserve that area where the mounds were, we decided with the advice and approval of our archeologist to build demonstration mounds over the footprint of where the originals were," said Nell. "It's nice to have it there. It allows people to get an idea of what was there."

The preserve features hard-packed shell trails, observation tower, picnic pavilion and elevated platform-stye boardwalks through uplands and salt marsh habitats.

There are no rest rooms but officials will be adding a port-o-let, said Charlie Hunsicker, county director of parks and natural resources.

Among the plants visitors will see are beauty berry, oak trees and prickly pear cactus.

Wildlife includes many birds such as bright pink roseate spoonbills, night herons, blue herons and bald eagles.

To see aquatic life, the best way is to kayak around the area to observe fiddler crabs, stingrays, mullet, tarpon and toad fish, officials say.

"They're a really neat type of fish," Nell said about the toad fish. "They're very, very ugly. They have a face only a mother could love."

The preserve represents restoration of the native Sarasota Bay coastal habitat, said Hunsicker.

"It gives recognition to the important plants and animals we attempt to provide homes for and to support in all of our conservation efforts," he said.

"The property also hopefully gives the proper respect to the peoples who came long before us, who themselves lived in harmony with their environment, and practiced sustainable practices we hope to emulate in our modern society such as careful husbandry of fish and shellfish and scarce water supplies in their daily living."

It was extremely fortunate preserve developers were able to locate the original records from the Smithsonian site exploration with the guidance and counsel of Bill Burger, Hunsicker said.

Years ago, developer Pat Neal bought the land that now makes up the preserve planning a high-rise residential building.

There had already been a big battle over development in the area, and at one point, former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash called Neal, and suggested they try to reach a deal to preserve the property from development, Neal recalled last week.

"He said, 'Let's see if we can work together on this,'" said Neal.

From a single phone call, the preserve became a reality.

The settlement between Neal and the county occurred July 27, 2005, Hunsicker said.

The contract sales price was $15.9 million; Neal donated $6.9 million while the county's purchase price was just more than $9 million, Hunsicker said.

"We offset the $9 million purchase price with a $3 million competitively awarded grant from the Florida Communities Trust," Hunsicker said.

Recreational cost components totalled approximately $950,000, while environmental restoration work to remove exotic plants such as Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, creating native plant habitats and re-establishing tidal flow and ponds, cost approximately $550,000 for a grand total of about $1.5 million, Hunsicker said.

The county got approximately $770,000 in competitive environmental restoration and recreational component grants to help.

"We began working on the restoration components first beginning in 2006, progressing to the recreational components of construction on a pay-as-you-go basis, making sure we had our grants awarded and in hand before moving on to the next steps of construction," Hunsicker said. "Now, we're seeing the fruits of that effort with a wonderful preserve."

The county ribbon-cutting ceremony for the public is at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, with guest speakers, light refreshments, demonstrations of Native American tools and naturalist-guided tours of the site.

Pat Neal, for whose family the preserve was named, is delighted at the legacy the preserve represents.

Asked about his motivation in helping to make the preserve a reality, Neal said, "After all, my whole family are citizens of Manatee County, Florida, and we have built here in Florida for 45 years. My hopes are that my children and grandchildren stay, grow up, and grow their children in our community.

"Preserving the natural features and archeology and historical demonstration should be part of their future, and for everyone who lives in Manatee County," he said. "(My wife) Charlene's and my gift can be a lasting contribution in this community, where we've been so successful."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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