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Clearing of West Sanibel River Preserve Nearly Complete

May 15, 2024
Northwest West Sanibel River Preserve April 2024

As an ecosystem restoration brought about by Hurricane Ian’s storm surge, the West Sanibel River Preserve is SCCF’s next west-end preserve that is benefitting from the clearing of hardwoods that had disturbed natural marsh habitats over several decades.

With the clearing of dead vegetation nearly complete, SCCF will document wildlife moving back into the cleared, open area as the rainy season begins.

The clearing of dead vegetation from the west parcel of the West Sanibel Preserve (WSRP), from Gulf Pines Road to Rue Belle Mer Road began at the beginning of the year as the mechanical clearing of the Gulf Ridge Preserve, the most negatively affected property from Hurricane Ian, wrapped up.

WSRP was the next priority as a high percentage of vegetation, mostly hardwoods, succumbed to saltwater inundation. The storm surge flooded the island compromising the fresh or slightly brackish water bodies with high salinities, including the Sanibel Slough.

“Many people ask why these two preserves were so profoundly affected,” said SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management Director Chris Lechowicz. “Essentially, these preserves were dominated by hardwood trees and shrubs such as buttonwood that are not well adapted for heavy saltwater intrusion from storm surges.”

The natural salt-tolerant grasses that once occupied these open canopy marshes are being restored so these conservation lands are more reminiscent of how they were for centuries.

“This will tremendously benefit wildlife, as well as be more resilient for any future storm surge events,” he said.

Both preserves have a high percentage of wetlands and transitional wetlands due to the low elevation. Also, water is kept higher in the west basin of the Sanibel Slough through the City of Sanibel’s weir system, as opposed to the east basin for several reasons. The east/west basin is defined by lands to the east and west of Tarpon Bay Road.

“Historically, those areas would have been mostly salt-tolerant grasses that can withstand occasional washovers,” said Lechowicz. “Periodic fire and the sporadic storm surge events helped keep the island’s interior mostly open canopy.”

These wetlands and transitional wetlands on WSRP and Gulf Ridge Preserve held this salty water for weeks as the dominant buttonwood trees (Conocarpus erectus), cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto), and other shrubby hardwood trees’ root systems became stressed and died.

“Now that many acres of dead trees have been removed, our next step is to get more native grasses back on the preserves and prevent buttonwoods and other hardwoods from once again dominating the landscape,” said Lechowicz.

Native wildlife on Sanibel thrives in these open canopy habitats with a mosaic of edge habitats, including tree lines and islands.

“Fire is the best way to keep these lands natural, but in areas where prescribed fire is not possible, we rely on mechanical and chemical treatments,” he added.

The removal of the dead vegetation gives young plants more of an opportunity to prosper due to more sunlight and less competition. Plant growth will happen very quickly, as it did on the Gulf Ridge Preserve, especially with the onset of the rainy season.

“Wildlife from neighboring areas will be moving back into the preserve, especially now that the waterbodies are visible, and it’s a sunnier area and not acres of shady, impenetrable woods,” said Lechowicz. “We look forward to documenting the results of this restoration effort.”

To help with the restoration of the historical marsh in the Gulf Ridge Preserve, sign up to volunteer next week.

Volunteer for Marsh Madness on May 21 or May 23 >>>>>


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