Two playful squirrels take a brief break from chasing each other through the trees on a recent afternoon at Moccasin Lake Nature Park.
CLEARWATER – It’s a green haven of trees and wildlife in the middle of the densest county in the state. Moccasin Lake Nature Park, at 2750 Park Trail Lane, is just off of U.S. 19 between Drew Street and State Road 590 and is home to six ecosystems in its 51 acres of land.
Now at the end of a master plan process for the park, the clear consensus is that the park should be preserved in its current natural state indefinitely, though the technical details of how best to do that are still being sorted out.
“As part of the (advisory) group, one of the primary focuses is maintaining the facility as a nature park and an environmental education center instead of having it transform into another type of facility,” said Jason Mastropietro, a member of the Suncoast Herpetological Society and a member of the Moccasin Lake Stakeholder Advisory Committee. “Like, it’s not going to be a ball park, for example. So it’s guiding towards that type of direction.”
The Suncoast Herpetological Society – a nonprofit, educational group for people interested in reptiles and amphibians – is one of the groups that meet regularly at Moccasin Lake Park, and therefore Mastropietro was selected as its stakeholder representative on the committee.
The Clearwater Audubon Society is also a major stakeholder with the park, and Cynthia Kluss, Audubon program chairwoman and historian, is the committee stakeholder adviser for that group.
“What we’re trying to do is keep the facility as close to what it does now,” Kluss said. “It’s a flavor of the outdoors. There’s just enough of the outdoors there so you can appreciate what goes on. One of the live oaks has a tremendous beehive up in the trees, and that’s pretty impressive. You get your binoculars out and look up there and there’s a lot of activity out there. And you go down to Moccasin Lake and there’s an observation deck and you can see limpkins, alligators, and other wildlife.”
It is rare to have so many different ecosystems in that size of an area, but there is dry prairie, hardwood hammocks and forest, scrub swamp, wetlands, hardwood swamp and pinelands.
Both Kluss and Mastropietro agree that Moccasin Lake Park has value to the community because it gives the general public the opportunity to get a taste of nature and the wilderness without having to drive far away. This is a little haven nestled right in the middle of an urban setting.
“They will understand what it is to walk under the trees and be observant and quiet,” Kluss said. “It’s kind of a transition between total urban and total wildlife, and we’re trying to keep that but modernize some of the facilities.”
One of the original features and goals of the park when it was established in 1982 was to use and demonstrate sustainable energy, said Felicia Leonard, parks and recreation cultural affairs administrative support manager and key city contact with the Moccasin Lake advisory committee. Now, however, the technology has changed so much and keeps changing rapidly that what the park has is outdated and it would not be able to keep up with technology fast enough to make it worth keeping that as part of its mission, Leonard said.
The advisory committee held several public meetings and also asked people to participate in public surveys about the park. There was a tremendous turnout for both, Leonard said. The overwhelming consensus was that everyone wants the nature park to stay as it is in its natural state and for it to be used for educational purposes.
“The mission and vision statement created by the Moccasin Lake Stakeholder Advisory Committee is that the mission of Moccasin Lake Nature Park is to preserve its local Florida ecosystems with the focus on conservation and education,” Mastropietro said.
To ensure these things, the committee is studying the city charter, land use and zoning categories to determine what would be the best and most effective way to permanently preserve the park in its natural state and prevent it from being used for anything else in the future. Right now there are three possibilities, Leonard said. They could either keep it the same as it is now if they decide there are already enough protections under current statutes and zonings; they could change its zoning from recreation/open space to a nature preserve zoning, though that would mean they would have to change the nature preserve language to include allowances for minimal structures such as boardwalks; or they could change the city charter to specifically protect the park, ensuring that it would take a public referendum by the voters to ever allow the park to be used for anything else.
Leonard said that the park might have those desired protections already. The current statute states: “No municipality-owned real property which was identified as recreation/open space on the city’s comprehensive land use plan map on Nov. 16, 1989, or at any time thereafter, may be sold, donated, leased for a new use, or otherwise transferred without prior approval at referendum, except when the council determines it appropriate to dedicate right-of-way from, or easement over, such property. Such recreation/open space property may be leased for an existing use, without referendum, unless such lease is otherwise prohibited by charter or ordinance.”
Cliff Norris, supervisor of Moccasin Lake Nature Park, said it is important that the park is saved forever, no matter what method is used to do that.
“It would protect the trail sections, the area of the park that is not impacted by buildings for importunity,” Norris said. “And it would stay a habitat for the animals, for the plants, and for the city of Clearwater residents in keeping the green space. So that would be excellent.”
Leonard said there is not any kind of thought or plan to change the use of the park; this is merely a protective measure.
Norris has been with the park since day one, and he said it is important to the community. There are all kinds of snakes, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants on the property. There have even been foxes breeding in the park, he said, and it is an important bird sanctuary.
“It’s a very special place for bird migration,” Norris said. “And it gives the public a chance to get out into nature. … It’s just enjoying nature not on a screen. Not on a computer screen or a TV, but truly being out there and experiencing what the wilderness is and getting hands-on experienced with nature.”
Going forward, the committee hopes that the park can expand its educational opportunities and exhibits.
“The vision is to provide more educational wildlife and habitat educational opportunities,” Kluss said. “We’re hoping to expand on that and having some of the invasive species put under control like the air potato.”
She added that they want to bring out biologists to help identify the invasive species and then work to get rid of as many of them as possible.
“Part of the plan is to have the survey done by a professional biologist as to what we have and what we want to keep and the invasive species that need to be removed or at least controlled to a point where the native species have a chance to dominate the landscape,” Kluss said. “We don’t want to reach that tipping point.”
Part of the educational display would include invasive plants and animals so people can recognize and be more aware of them, Kluss said. One example is the Bufo Toad, which is a giant and is extremely poisonous to animals, including pets. If a dog licks it, it can die, and the toads are not afraid of people or other animals. If people have seen them in real life in a safe environment, then they could recognize them easier in everyday life and hopefully better protect their pets.
There will be one more public meeting where the committee will seek the community’s input about the 10-year plan. There are also opportunities for students to volunteer at the park and earn Bright Futures volunteer hours.