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More resources needed for environmental lands
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Environmental management of county lands is challenging, in part due to “islands of greens” adjacent to residential neighborhoods, as evidenced by this area near Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs.
Prescribed burns benefit the natural environment and help prevent catastrophic wildfires. Planned burns aren’t possible in areas close to residential land or roadways.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Paul Cozzie, director of Parks and Conservation Resources, shows an example of a machine needed for mechanical treatments to help manage environmental lands during a May 13 Pinellas County Commission work session.
CLEARWATER – Budget cuts have taken a toll on management of Pinellas County’s environmental lands.

Paul Cozzie, director of Parks and Conservation Resources, updated county commissioners on activities by his department and the current state of affairs during a May 13 work session.

Parks and Conservation Resources operates and maintains more than 20,000 acres of the county’s natural areas. Most are located within preserves and management areas, which require specific activities to maintain their ecological health and biodiversity, he said in a staff memo.

Primary land management activities include wildfire prevention, prescribed burning, mechanical treatment, invasive exotics management and restoration.

Parks and Conservation Resources’ mission is to “maintain and protect the inherent value of natural, cultural and recreational resources through access, education and stewardship that enhances quality of life for our community and future generations,” Cozzie told the commission.

However, budget cuts have made that mission more challenging in recent years.

Cozzie pointed out that in 2009, staffing levels for parks was 188 full-time employees and 32 for environmental lands. In 2011, environmental lands division was consolidated with the park division. In 2014, staffing levels for parks, preserves and management areas is down to 114 full time employees.

In addition, Extension took over responsibility for programming at Brooker Creek and Weedon Island education centers in 2011, the same year that access to preserve lands was increased from five days to week to seven.

Parks and Conservation Resources manages 20,557 acres, which is about 11 percent of the county’s land area. The land includes 15 regional parks, four preserves, five beach access parks, five neighborhood parks, 15 management areas and three special purpose parks, which includes the Pinellas Trail and Pinewood Cultural Park, home of Florida Botanical Gardens and Heritage Village.

Cozzie talked about the diverse natural communities and wildlife biodiversity that make up the environmental lands. He explained the ongoing work done to protect and preserve cultural resources. He pointed out “islands of green” due to encroachment by residential areas, making management more challenging.

He said Park and Conservation Resources uses management plans approved by the commission to guide its work. He explained different techniques used to manage county resources, which are tailored by land-type.

He talked about work done to help prevent catastrophic wildfires through prescribed burns, which are now done primarily by the Florida Fire Service in exchange for the use of a facility in Brooker Creek. Cozzie said the county no longer has enough trained staff to do controlled burns.

Cozzie said timing for prescribed burns on lands located so close to urban areas was difficult due to the need for smoke management. He also said that during years of drought, fewer burns are done due to safety concerns. He estimates that about 800 acres a year should be scheduled for a prescribed burn. On average, only 150 acres burn via a combination of prescribed and wildfires.

Prescribed burns are done for the ecological benefits, clearing out the dense undergrowth to allow sunlight to penetrate, encouraging growth of a more diverse group of plants needed to sustain wildlife. Planned burns also keep out species that are not natural to the land.

Cozzie said not all the county’s environmental lands are “burnable.” Some is located too close to residential areas or busy roadways. He said more burns needed to be scheduled.

“What we’ve been doing the past two decades won’t sustain us. We need to do more burns,” he said.

Cozzie asked the commission to “optimize funding to do as much as possible.”

He said the goal of 800 acres a year probably was not attainable.

“In an ideal world, we would do 800 acres a year, but we’ll never see an ideal world,” he said. “But we need to do all we can.”

Management of environmental lands also is done using mechanical treatments, such as a mulching mower. Mechanical removal of understory works in areas where burns aren’t possible. An example is the land in Heritage Village. Machines also are used to thin the canopy in the pine forests to allow the remaining trees to grow strong and healthy.

Mechanical means, along with staff and volunteer labor, is used to rid land of invasive species, which threaten to take over and overgrow natural species. Cozzie said the county doesn’t own the equipment needed, so it must contract to have the work done. He estimated that about 3,400 acres a year needed mechanical treatment. He said the county was spending about $80,000 a year to contract the work for mechanical treatments on 66 acres to control invasive species.

Parks and Conservation Resources No. 1 request of the commission to money for more mechanical treatments. Cozzie estimated the cost at $600,000 to $700,000 to buy one machine, plus the cost of an operator.

Commission Chair Karen Seel asked if the county had previously owned the equipment. Cozzie said no. Seel is concerned that some needed equipment might have been sold during the Great Recession. Cozzie said Parks and Conservation Resources had a smaller piece of equipment, which was paid for with grant money – but it wasn’t suitable to do the job.

He also said the pool of contractors with the expertise to do the work was limited. He said Parks and Conservation Resources recently paid $25,000 for a week of work at Heritage Village.

Seel asked if the equipment Cozzie was requesting could be used by stormwater management staff.

“It could be used for any land clearing,” he said.

He said a forestry mulcher could take down trees in a matter of seconds.

Seel asked Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard to schedule a meeting to go over budget requests from all organizations that receive funding from the county. She said a discussion was needed to talk about reoccurring versus non-reoccurring expenses – along with a total of the requests.

Woodard agreed to do so and quoted former county commissioner Bob Stewart, who often said, the county’s “needs are infinite and resources are finite.”
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