Of the 1,100 acres that make up Fort De Soto County Park, the beaches probably get the most traffic. Both are close to grassy picnic areas under shade trees.
East Beach offers a good view of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and North Beach’s fine sand and access to unspoiled nature have gotten number one rankings by Dr. Beach and Trip Advisor.
Park Director Jim Wilson points to a sandbar offshore where people are wading.
“The one thing your listeners can’t see is the delta shoal and the island that I’m looking at now and that’s all our sand," Wilson said. "This beach here used to be about 90 meters larger than it is right now.”
Wilson explains the one constant in a beach environment is change. Sand gets transported on or off the beach all the time due to weather. During Tropical Storm Debbie in 2012, the three-mile stretch of North Beach lost between 100 and 300 feet of sand. Wilson said a positive side effect of the storm was the creation of big dunes.
Wilson takes us to another area of the beach.
“I’m going to take you to the tallest still dunes in Pinellas County and show you the beautiful beach that’s evolved on the North Tip," Wilson said. Friends of Fort De Soto and other partners including Tampa Bay Watch planted over 150,000 sea oats in the last 12 months and already we’ve accumulated quite a few meters of fresh white fine quartz sand."
The sea oats help retain sand, unlike what was until very recently, a monoculture of Australian Pines, an invasive species that does nothing to guard against erosion. We get in Wilson’s truck and he takes us to an area that’s been cleared of A-Pines. He explains it’s a move that has made some people unhappy.
“Well, there’s nostalgic entitlement, ‘they’ve always been there.'" Wilson said. "They were planted thinking they hold the sand , finding out just the opposite. You know, it’s science of course, and the argument is 'well, that was science of the day.'"
"It’s true, that was the science of the day, but I argue back 'would you like to have a doctor that’s practicing with 50-year-old practices or would you like to have the newest science?' And the newest science says they’re not a good thing.”
Wilson said Australian Pines don’t do anything to build sand and they don’t do anything to retain it because they have a very shallow root system. The park now has clearly distinct areas right next to one another.
Picnic areas shaded by a growing culture of native oak trees and sunny beaches bordered by dune grass and sea oats. So Wilson said people can have both.
“Everybody’s up underneath the oak trees with their picnic tables in the shade. The people on the beach, not so much in the shade, but I don’t think that’s what they came for, but there’s still hundreds of people out here having a great day. And the one thing I do see is shade on the beach in the way of umbrellas, pop up canopies and lots of sunscreen," Wilson said.
Wilson thinks the current state of the beach is closer now than it has been to what the park designers had in mind more than 50 years ago.
“It’s a beautiful thing," Wilson said. "This is what a Florida beach is supposed to be like with sea oats growing, other dune vegetation. This area produced oyster catcher chicks, plover chicks and also had a few least terns."
People in harmony with nature – easier said than done, but a balance constantly in focus for Fort De Soto Park.