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One ton at a time, Sisters get a cleaning

LONGBOAT KEY

A ton of trash.

That was the final count.

It was amazing to see how much junk was cleaned up from Sister Keys in Sarasota Bay last Saturday morning, with dozens of volunteers from Sarasota Bay Watch, the Bay Buddies Estuary Program, Florida Audubon Society, the Parrot Heads, and the Town of Longboat Key, rummaging around the keys and tossing trash into bags for removal.

The islands on the north end of Longboat Key have changed much since the 1930s when they were buried by shell and sand. They almost became ”Shangri La,” the site of a landing strip and golf course. That fell through.

Then in the late 1980s, when the Sister Keys were again offered for sale, a group called the Sister Keys Conservancy was formed to preserve the islands. Rusty Chinnis, chairman of the group and a Longboat Key resident, thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somewhere in Sarasota Bay, some island that didn’t have a house on it?”

But the keys were on sale for $2 million, and for two or three years thereafter, the group tried to raise the money. They held bake sales, involved senators and media, anything to raise money. Chinnis said after a few years, however, they’d only raised $50,000.

Chinnis said the group in 1992 convinced the Town of Longboat Key to purchase the islands for open space.

A roughly $1-million mitigation project followed to restore the keys, removing invasive species such as Australian Pines and Brazilian Peppers.

But there was still one last thing to do — clean out all the trash, most of which had likely come flying off boats. At high tide, the trash flows in and often collects around mangrove trees or other trees and pockets near the shorelines.

There were chunks of Styrofoam, bait tops, beer cans (most popular brad, by far, was Busch Light), life jackets, empty shot bottles, shoes, sandals — you know, nothing worth keeping.

On a cool morning that quickly felt hot (at least to me) at midday, we often ran out of trash bags, but that didn’t stop us from getting bags from others, sometimes running them 300 yards up the trail to a trio of volunteers who had run out.

I passed children who were kept to work by adults. Many volunteers weren’t afraid to stick their heads into spiders webs, feet into muck, or hands into unidentifiable trash. When it was all done, and we were back on the shoreline, one woman even had a cluster of fire ant bites on her wrist.

The island itself is remarkable, and true to Chinnis’s vision, there are no structures on the keys. It was this ideal that this state’s outdoors enthusiasts like to think of as Old Florida.

Chinnis guessed it had been at least 15 years since the Sister Keys had undergone such a clean-up.

In any event, there’s probably still some trash out there, no doubt some debris from all those Busch Light fans, but you have to start somewhere.

I’m convinced we’ll get there eventually.

One ton at a time.

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