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Date of Issue: July 23, 2008

Robinson Preserve opens to public

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More than 100 species of birds - including wood storks - can be found at Robinson Preserve.
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After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, visitors to Robinson Preserve see the park by wagon tour.
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A kayaker explores Robinson Preserve, now open to the public.
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Visitors begin to explore Robinson Preserve after the grand opening July 19. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
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The entrance to Robinson Preserve.

Manatee County officials and citizens celebrated an environmental renaissance July 19 with the official opening of Robinson Preserve.

The hour of speeches leading up to a ribbon-cutting at the entrance of the northwest Bradenton preserve featured many superlatives.

“Incredible,” said Manatee County Commission Chairperson Jane von Hahmann, referring to the preserve. “In 1999, there was a development order for this property and today…”

She gestured with an arm toward the gates to the preserve, with its mangrove shore, lakes, ponds, bridges and trails.

“Wonderful,” said Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash. “It’s a dream come true.”

“Spectacular,” said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “It’s absolutely spectacular.”

A joyful spirit also existed in the audience. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” said Nancy Tucker of Anna Maria, after listening to the congratulations and praise shared by county officials and staff. “I am so excited. I’ve waited and watched and helped and I’m just ecstatic.”

Robinson Preserve consists of 487 acres of rehabilitated farmland.

Bill Robinson, whose family partnered with the county to make the preserve a reality, called the land “perfect.” The preserve is bordered by Tampa Bay, Manatee River and Perico Bayou, but for years the property had been used as farmland, with nature’s flow of water blocked with dikes to protect crops.

In 1999, plans to develop the land were presented to the county, including a proposal for a golf course and housing development with 460 units.

Plans remain for an 18-hole golf course and 20 housing units in the vicinity, but earlier this decade the county, in negotiations with the Robinson family, established the partnership to build Robinson Preserve.

The county purchased Robinson Preserve for a discounted $10 million, with $6.4 million of the expense paid with Florida Communities Trust money and the remaining cost covered by county taxpayer funds dedicated to preservation.

Restoration in large part has been accomplished with grants from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The celebration at the preserve began at about 9 a.m., with a series of speeches. Manatee County conservation land management director Charlie Hunsicker opened the comments: “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a wonderful morning.”

Von Hahmann welcomed the crowd, thanked the county staff, partnering agencies and the Robinson family.

“I am so grateful to the Robinsons,” she said.

McClash said Robinson Preserve is part of the county’s greater plan for northwest Bradenton. Nearby are the Palma Sola Botanical Park, Geraldson Farm, Neal Preserve and Perico Preserve.

“The county commission raised the millage rate six or seven years ago to buy properties. We thought it was important to preserve,” he said.

County Commissioner Amy Stein recalled being a “lone vote” against residential development almost a decade ago.

“This,” she said, praising county staff for Robinson, “is such a wonderful achievement.”

Whitmore also praised county staff and Pat Glass, a former county commissioner and member of the Swiftmud board, and called Robinson Preserve “another jewel” in the county’s necklace.

Robinson told the audience, “I am so proud.… It’s really a perfect piece of property.”

Anna Maria Island residents can reach the preserve via the entrance at 99th Street West in Bradenton or on foot, bike or by boat at Perico Bayou near Manatee Avenue.

The interior of the preserve features hiking paths, kayak and canoe waterways, bridges, picnic spots, a primitive campground, mangrove forests and a 53-foot-tall tower with a wide-open view of the Tampa Bay area. The 120-year-old Valentine House, moved to the preserve by boat, is near the entrance to the property, scheduled for a renovation to become Robinson’s information center.

While the interior of the preserve serves the needs of Manatee County’s residents and visitors, the preserve also serves the needs of many other creatures — 75 species of fish and marine invertebrates can be found in the preserve and more than 100 species of birds, including roseatte spoonbills, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and marsh sparrows.

For months, the county’s conservation lands management department has coordinated legions of volunteers to help revive Robinson Preserve, now open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset.

During the restoration, the county also sponsored a series of programs intended to introduce the preserve to the public, as well as bring people close to nature. Those programs will continue, said county naturalist Melissa Cain Nell.

At 6:30 p.m. this Saturday, July 26, Robinson will be the site of a Wild Florida 101: Saltern Tracks and Scat program.

Wild Florida 101 classes are designed for adult and teen participants over the age of 16. The programs provide the community with a way to discover more about the preserves, their resident wildlife and the county’s management methods.

“The salterns of Robinson Preserve are a wonderful place to find footprints,” Nell said. “Our preserves are filled with wildlife, but you may not always see them. They leave behind plenty of signs for the careful observer.

“In this program, participants will learn how to look for little clues that tell Rangers all about the critters that inhabit Manatee County’s preserves.”

Reservations are required to attend the free program. Write to Nell at melissa.nell@mymanatee.org or call 941-748-4501, ext. 4605.