The speech of flowers excels the flowers of speech,” sang George Harrison in 1975. Here in Indian River County, visitors to protected lands might well agree. With a county referendum to approve $50 million for the purchase and preservation of ecologically sensitive land having passed with a landslide 78 percent of the vote in November, conservation projects are thriving locally. But these projects are not just on paper. A peek at the properties being preserved gives insight into why they were chosen and what they offer.
Opening to the public soon is Jones Pier Conservation Area on Jungle Trail. The Jones Pier project is notable for its variety. “It’s all about habitat,” says Wendy Swindell, conservation lands manager for Indian River County’s Department of Parks and Recreation. She and Beth Powell, Parks and Recreation director, brainstormed about how to develop habitats that were as varied as possible. This begins at the water’s edge, with what is called a “living shoreline.” Instead of a seawall, there is a natural shoreline lush with vegetation. The banks are planted with native flowers that will benefit butterflies and honeybees while providing splashes of color—pink, purple, yellow, and orange.
Jones Pier has historic significance as well. In 1889, a settler named Seaborn Jones established a farmstead there; the site continued in his family for generations, with the docks and the fish shack becoming local landmarks. Today, the piers of the docks have been covered with oyster matting by the Florida Oceanographic Society; it is hoped this will provide a spark of inspiration for dock owners in the area, as oysters are beneficial to the health of the lagoon.
A nearby building with an outdoor classroom is named in honor of local historian Ruth Stanbridge. And the Jones farmhouse itself is being turned into a museum as part of the county project. “It will be very ‘Old Florida,’” Swindell says. “What makes Jones Pier important to me is that it’s such a mix of history and ecology. You get a feel for what the area was like in the late 1800s, and you also see the amazing wildlife.”
Moving inland, visitors will reach a 4-acre salt marsh, interspersed with areas of deep pond. “Grassy salt marsh is a habitat we don’t have a lot of in Indian River County,” explains Swindell. In fact, the salt marsh feature of the Jones Pier project is being developed with the help of a prestigious ally: the National Estuary Program.
This program is designed to help 28 estuaries across the United States that have been recognized as having national significance—places like Long Island Sound, Galveston Bay, and areas of the Chesapeake. The Indian River Lagoon is on that list. Dave Fuss, director of land stewardship at the Indian River Land Trust, notes: “These are estuaries of national significance; they’re important enough to garner that kind of attention.”
Thus, the value of the Indian River Lagoon is being recognized on a national level, with corresponding benefits in support for the land trust and for county conservation projects. Such attention can also help in establishing a unified strategy for environmental goals—“getting everybody going in the same direction so we’re not duplicating efforts,” as Fuss puts it. “That way, we’re all working towards monitoring the health of the lagoon and supporting the lagoon.”
At Jones Pier, the salt marsh habitat is indeed designed to support the lagoon. A slow flow of water from the lagoon through the salt marsh and back out to the lagoon allows for a cycle of natural purification. How is this flow of water achieved? With an ancient method that is inherently environmentally friendly: the Archimedes screw. This hydraulic device slowly conveys water up from the lagoon and into the marshlands. Its name derives from the Greek genius who wrote about it, although Archimedes may have been describing an even older technology that was used by the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations; one ancient source says that such screws provided the irrigation for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by channeling water from the Euphrates. It is fascinating to see this ancient technology in use today and contributing to the health of the Indian River Lagoon.
The Jones Pier Conservation Area also includes a maritime hammock that has been planted with native trees, shrubs, and ground cover. Nearby is a gopher tortoise sanctuary that is home to several young tortoises. These animals are valued not only for their endearing nature but because they are a keystone species, with hundreds of other species benefiting from their burrows. Their sanctuary at Jones Pier is bright with color thanks to flourishing dune sunflowers. Why? Because dune sunflowers are not a popular item on the tortoises’ menu; thus, they are left behind after the creatures have enjoyed more favored vegetation.
All considered, the Jones Pier Conservation Area is vibrant with life. “As the trees grow, the songbirds will be amazing,” says Swindell. “This will be a very good area for migratory species.” Even now, when you look into the shallow waters of the salt marsh, you are likely to see the footprints of wading birds; herons, egrets, and ibises thrive there. Kingfishers can be seen, too, and a river otter is a regular visitor. There is also a resident kestrel, which sometimes surveys the entire scene from atop the canopy of a live oak.
Another county conservation project now underway is the Lost Tree Islands Conservation Area, which includes three islands in the midst of the lagoon: Joe Earman Island, Duck Head Island, and Hogs Head Island. All three are natural islands that have been built up over time with added spoil, making them an unusual combination of natural and spoil islands. This conservation area would combine wildlife habitat and public use, with
Hogs Head Island being set aside solely for wildlife and the other two having public access. (Joe Earman Island already has a dock, and one may be added to Duck Head Island as well.)
As is often the case, a major part of the work is removing invasive species and replanting natives. “When we replant like that,” Swindell says, “we try to throw a bunch of different native species in there; then we see what works well in that environment, and we add more of that.” Although some phases of the project are waiting on permits, replanting is happening now—and it’s important, she explains, “because when more people start going out there, we don’t want it to look like a moonscape.”
A distinctive feature being discussed for Lost Tree Islands Conservation Area is the use of platforms for nesting shorebirds, the intent being to mimic beach nesting conditions while providing greater protection with the aerial position. This strategy could help the declining population of least terns, a species that nests on beaches.
County conservation projects go hand in hand with the work of the Indian River Land Trust and the support of the National Estuary Program in preserving areas that have been deemed environmentally significant. Of course, such places offer beauty, as well. They can reward their visitors with the opportunity to learn about a variety of habitats, to see flourishing bird life, and to appreciate the “speech of flowers.”