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Bringing Life Back to Gulf Ridge Preserve

June 5, 2024

After Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on Sanibel Island, Gulf Ridge Preserve, a 21-acre piece of land owned by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), became the focal point for an ambitious community-driven restoration project. 

After five intensive days of planting, from May 14 to June 5, over 100 dedicated volunteers came together to plant over 8,000 spartina and saw grasses. Together, they put in a whopping 220 volunteer hours to breathe new life into the landscape.

Even Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson and his family got their hands dirty for the cause!

Kealy Pfau, Coastal Watch Director, expressed immense gratitude for the community’s support. “We’ve had tons of community members come and help us out, and we are super excited that we’ve had such a great turnout of volunteers coming together to help us with this monumental project,” she said.

The efforts are already showing promising results. “We’ve already seen some local wildlife checking out the newly planted areas.  It will be great to see how many species utilize this habitat once it’s fully restored,” Pfau noted. 

Hurricane Ian Destruction

“Prior to the hurricane, a lot of this property ended up being a lot of hardwood trees. This property had a couple of large swales that historically were all wetland grasses. But over time, from lack of fire, a lot of the hardwood trees moved into the marshes and overtook it,”  explained Chris Lechowicz, SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management Director.

The hurricane’s saltwater surge killed many of these hardwood trees, particularly buttonwood, which had encroached on the marshland over several decades. In the wake of the disaster, SCCF brought in contractors to remove the dead trees, opening up the marsh for restoration. “Now that we have this marsh open, we’re replanting with cordgrass and sawgrass in the hopes that we can keep this a grassland and prevent all the hardwood trees from coming back in here,” said Lechowicz.

The Importance of Marsh Habitats

The marshes act as a natural barrier for future storms, providing critical protection for the island. The Gulf Ridge Preserve is a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife, including the rare Sanibel Island rice rat (Oryzomys palustris sanibeli), which is endemic to Sanibel. 

“The Sanibel rice rat’s habitat was actually mostly in these open cordgrass marshes. And over the last, I would say, half a century or more, we lost a lot of these because of hardwood trees moving in. So now that we’re able to restore this, we’re hoping that we can expand the range of the Sanibel Island rice rat,” he added.

“These rice rats are only found here on Sanibel,” said Kealy Pfau, Coastal Watch Director. “So restoring this habitat is crucial for their survival.”

Thank You Volunteers 

“We’re super excited that SCCF has had this opportunity to bring in so many community members to be a part of this process,” said Pfau. “From the beginning, having this be a bare slate that we’ve been able to plant these thousands of grasses, to having these community members know that they were a part of it, to see the progression over the next few years.”

As the rainy season approaches, the newly planted spartina and sawgrass are expected to thrive, providing essential habitat for wildlife and a natural barrier against future storms. The community members who participated in the project will be able to witness the transformation and growth of the marsh, a testament to their hard work and dedication.

 “The Gulf Ridge Preserve restoration project stands as a beacon of hope and resilience, demonstrating the power of community action in the face of natural disasters. The marsh, which will soon again be teeming with life, is a living symbol of recovery and the enduring spirit of Sanibel,” said Pfau.


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