By Dr. Rob Norman
Although Pinellas County abounds with natural areas, Brooker Creek Preserve is the largest with 8,700 acres filled with hiking and equestrian trails that allow visitors to observe native flora and fauna. Although the Preserve is surrounded by the housing of the thickly settled local neighborhoods of East Lake, once you get inside the Preserve, it is an ocean of solitude of forested wetlands, pine flatwoods and other wonderful ecosystems.
During a recent hike with my buddy Ed, we walked along a sandy ridge with more active gopher tortoise holes than I have encountered on any of my previous adventures. On each side of the ridge were areas that had been ecologically burned, and this allowed us a way to access the ridge. The rich, toasty smell of the burned palmettos mixed with the scent of warm sand was inviting. The higher ground provided a grand view of the palmetto prairies, cedar swamps, and other parcels of land. Above us were ospreys and hawks floating and hovering in the blue sky. As we continued to hike, we were offered a variety of melodies from cardinals and other birds skipping through the woods around us. And on the way out, we saw a healthy-looking gopher tortoise sauntering along the trail, stopping occasionally to chew on some grass and not minding us as we slipped past him.
One of my hobbies while hiking is collecting bones that we find and this day in Brooker Creek was one of the best. We found an almost fully intact skeleton that had obviously been exposed for many months, with bleached bones spread out along a dry creek bed. We took pictures and gathered it up and put it in a plastic bag. I send the specimens to a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida and she identifies the bones and keeps the bones for teaching and display purposes. It began a few months previously when I sent her a recently deceased squirrel–a fine and fresh specimen–that I found under a tree. When we finished that day’s hike, I transported it carefully back to my office and called to UF to see if I could find someone to identify it. After several calls I located a researcher who offered to look at it. Since I have liquid nitrogen in my office, I was able to give the specimen a quick freeze and ship it out to Gainesville right away. Within a week or so, I got an e-mail back from her that identified it as a flying squirrel. Since the squirrel, she has e-mailed her findings back to me on many specimens, including a deer, armadillo, raccoon mandible, and the partial leg bone of a bobcat.
Brooker Creek Preserve is in the northeastern corner of Pinellas County and is bordered by Pasco County to the north and Hillsborough County to the east. The Preserve is a wilderness area, not a park, and is managed by the Pinellas County Department of Parks and Conservation Resources. The Preserve protects a significant portion of the Brooker Creek Watershed and its namesake, Brooker Creek, is the only stream that enters Lake Tarpon. Numerous channels arise from wetlands in Hillsborough County and flow through swamps and uplands within the Preserve before combining into Brooker Creek east of Lake Tarpon.
Starting in the 1970’s through 2009, Pinellas County first acquired the property which today comprises Brooker Creek Preserve and has added on over the years to protect groundwater quality. The development and adoption of Pinellas County’s Growth Management Plan in 1989 created an urgency to expand conservation lands including environmentally sensitive tracts within the county. A “Penny for Pinellas” sales tax proved successful in expanding land purchases. In 1992 the Southwest Florida Water Management District purchased more than 1,600 acres adjacent to a county purchase of nearly 800 acres at the southern end of the Preserve. In 1993 another significant land acquisition program boost occurred when the State of Florida approved a grant request through its Preservation 2000, Communities Trust Fund Program for 13 separate parcels. Along with a matching contribution of $1.2 million, it was possible to add hundreds of additional acres to the Preserve, including the site for the Environmental Education Center. And in 1995, the State approved another $1.2 million for additional acreage. Hillsborough County purchased 400 acres adjacent to the Preserve in 1995.
The Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center opened in June of 2004 and features a scenic boardwalk and a 6,000 square-foot Exhibit Hall with 22 discovery-oriented experiences highlighting natural Florida and local history, including a variety of hands-on displays.
Pinellas County added over 700 acres to Brooker Creek Preserve in 2009 with the purchase of the Wilde property on the north side of Keystone Rd. that provides a corridor for wildlife by connecting Brooker Creek Preserve with 1,000 acres in Hillsborough County and with the Anclote River corridor. Other contiguous wildlife areas may be restored and expanded. Brooker Creek Preserve is a wonderful place to find the Great Outdoors of Florida. Come and explore!
Brooker Creek Preserve is located at 3940 Keystone Rd. in Tarpon Springs.