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Bailey Tract facts

By Staff | May 23, 2018

To the editor:

Although I have not followed the issues closely, and I have had no input into refuge planning for over 28 years, I did catch the letters to the editor in the May 9, 2018, edition of the Island Reporter. The letters were short on biological and historical accuracy.

First, no “developer’s” shovel has ever touched the soil of the Bailey Tract since its acquisition over a half-century ago. Purchase of this wetland parcel kicked off a long-term expansion of the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge. Managers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did some early diking in an attempt to create permanent surface fresh water in the 100-acre parcel. Bulldozing, installation of three artesian wells, and dynamite blasting to try and produce potholes that would reach the receding ground water aquifer in the late spring all failed. The desired year-round permanent surface water arrived on Sanibel Island a decade later; the result of the Lee County Mosquito Control District’s ditching program and the increasing number of real estate spoil ponds.

Secondly, in the mid and late sixties the Lee County Department of Transportation needed an on-island source of fill dirt to avoid long-distance hauling from the mainland. This was vitally important in their efforts to stabilize and continually maintain the integrity of eroding Captiva Road. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted more open surface water on the Bailey Tract so they entered into a cooperative agreement with Lee County. Since, several of the water bodies were named by refuge staff members. The now apparently ani-less Ani Pond was dug where it is because at the time the popular “Bird Tower” that was built in 1954 overlooked it. It was hoped that with the pond in close proximity improved wildlife observation advantages would be provided to the growing number of visitors. Ani Pond does continue to offer wildlife viewing opportunities. Any wildlife-oriented person knows that you must be at the right place at the right time for a viewing advantage. I recently was shown a dramatic alligator-related video shot there by a visitor. In 1958 (before advancing mosquito ditching reached Tarpon Bay Road from the east) I stood on the 20-foot high observation platform of this tower and I could see the lighthouse almost four and a half miles away at the eastern end of the island and to the west my vista reached as far as the eye could see across the savanna-like Sanibel Slough prairie. The tower fell into disrepair, was demolished in 1976, and never replaced. No real loss, by then the dramatic panorama had been lost because of encroaching tall vegetation.

Those who think that the Bailey Tract has always been an oasis of pristine wildlife habitat are mistaken. In dry season it was nearly an arid wasteland for without permanent surface water and it had little wildlife value; not even for Sanibel Island rice rats. It wasn’t until the man-made water bodies and the trail/dike systems were established that made it what it is today. I’m not debating if any planned attempt at Spartina restoration will enhance the threatened rat’s habitat or not. I will state that any work in such a tiny section of the slough to “restore” the mammal’s habitat will fail to increase its island-wide population. To really reach that goal only extremely broad and expensive management fixes will work. The history of the Bailey Tract is one of many conservation subjects that Betty Anholt and I cover in our upcoming book, soon to be published by The History Press.

Thirdly, the long open water areas located to the west of the Mangrove Head were excavated in the early eighties. By no means was this for road maintenance but rather the Fish and Wildlife Service (read J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge [after 1967]) needed fill to bring the construction sites for the new Office/Visitor Center and Maintenance Center on Sanibel-Captiva Road up to the required grade elevation and the contractor was given a special dispensation by the refuge manager to use the Bailey Tract as a source of that fill. In addition, to recreate the once moat-like body of water around the Mangrove Head it was also excavated deeper by Lee County because vegetative accumulation had filled any remaining natural water body. This tree island once harbored a large colonial nesting bird rookery and night roost but when surface water disappeared and after poachers took out the alligators so did the gator holes around the head and bird use came to a screaming halt. Predators could then reach the former island and their constant intrusion quickly drove the birds away. By the time the county restored the island characteristics of the Mangrove Head the crown of the mangroves had changed and the trees were not apparently acceptable to nesting birds. The refuge did briefly consider a mangrove pruning program to try and restore the former rookery for bird nesting but this idea never came to fruition. With money to spend on “rehabilitation” this concept should be reconsidered as part of the project. It would be difficult but doable. And, it just might work.

Lastly, the long body of open water between the Mangrove Head and Tarpon Bay Road was similarly created by Lee County as was the spoil pit on the northwest corner of the Bailey Tract on Island Inn Road. A mountain of sand once covered the existing nearby mowed opening.

In the end, my mind drifts back to 45 years ago. With a smile I wonder what the late George R. Campbell would have contributed to the public’s current commentary regarding the Bailey Tract.

Charles LeBuff

Fort Myers