Charlie Hunsicker’s infectious passion for environmental conservation and preservation serves a noble purpose. Manatee County’s director of Parks and Natural Resources is the primary architect behind the expansion and improvements of the county’s impressive and growing nature preserve network.
Not surprisingly, his latest and perhaps greatest project is the creation of an coastal ecosystem on 150 acres that once served as farmland but is now destined to be a splendid addition to the popular 487-acre Robinson Preserve. With Hunsicker as a tour guide, three Herald staffers got a recent peek at this work in progress.
It’s all about dirt today. Big earth-moving machines and dump trucks from Bradenton-based E.T. MacKenzie stay busy shaping the land with various elevations, contours and low spots — all to mimic mother nature, Hunsicker explains. Six ponds and various streams have been carved out of the land, awaiting tidal currents and groundwater to fill. Mounds of shells cover a wide swath of one pond, set to serve as oyster beds. Oysters serve a dual purpose — as a nutrition source for other creatures and as a natural water purification system.
The waters will also host habitat for snook and tarpon and other aquatic life washed into the streams by tidal currents. A channel will be cut to connect the preserve’s waters with Palma Sola Bay.
While observation towers are a standard structure at most nature preserves, including the older part of Robinson, this addition features a tall mound surrounded by water with wooden bridge access, just a couple of the 11 bridges in this project. The hill’s height allows for sweeping views that include the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Trails wind all around the acreage, including a 1.6-mile, twice-around trail constructed with a soft running surface.
Once this phase of the project is complete, native vegetation of all sorts will be planted — vegetation that creates diverse habitats for various creatures that will surely colonize the land. Pine flatwoods, hammocks and both salt and fresh water marshes will help accomplish that. Hunsicker aims to increase the diversity of species from both the plant and animal kingdoms, restoring the natural order eradicated by farming.
People will no doubt flock to this addition to kayak, canoe, hike and bike, all while observing Mother Nature’s finest.
Some 20 to 30 acres of the property hold a rare botanical treasure that will be preserved, the fascinating legacy of the Reasoner family, founders of a pioneering nursery and landscaping business that dates back more than a century. The founders set sail to Africa and South America and brought back plant cuttings they thought would thrive in the Florida climate, and some of those plants remain today. “They are 80 to 90 years old, and beautiful,” Hunsicker remarked.
At a cost approaching $9 million, county property owners should appreciate the fact that ad valorum taxes only account for some $600,000 to $800,000
That site will also be home to the Center for Environmental Education, a 1,730-square-foot ”green” structure with an upper-level “bird’s nest” tucked in the boughs of an oak tree, plus a tree house. Three age-specific playgrounds will be nearby. A telescope will be positioned on the center’s deck.
The project got off the ground, so to speak, in November, and Hunsicker hopes opening day occurs in early 2018 — if not sooner.
At a cost approaching $9 million, county property owners should appreciate the fact that ad valorum taxes only account for some $600,000 to $800,000, with Hunsicker capturing several multimillion-dollar grants and other funding. BP oil spill environmental restoration money paid a big chunk of the cost.
Robinson Preserve already attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually, both residents and tourists. The 150-acre addition should increase those numbers, further enhancing Northwest Bradenton as a destination for nature lovers and an economic power.
Just weeks ago, Hunsicker earned kudos at the opening of 176-acre Perico Preserve, on the opposite side of a bayou from the Robinson addition. The Neal Preserve opened in April 2015 on 120 acres along Sarasota Bay, a close neighbor to the Perico park.
Hunsicker doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. More projects are in the works. Manatee County’s quality of life keeps soaring alongside the economic benefits of our preserves.