Less than five miles from Anna Maria Island, Robinson Preserve, Perico Preserve and the Neal Preserve protect nearly 800 acres of prime estuarine habitat. Manatee County has done an exemplary job of saving these and other coastal habitats from development. Through partnerships with other environmental groups and organizations, they have restored and enhanced conservation lands, creating havens for indigenous fauna and flora.
These resources are vital and intricately linked benefiting birds, wildlife and fish. Not only do these restored wetlands provide habitat and protection for juvenile fish, they also provide the shrimp, minnows and crustaceans they feed on a place to flourish.
Robinson Preserve, the first and largest of the three sanctuaries encompasses 487 acres that border Tampa Bay and Perico Bayou. The property has miles of channels and open water that provide unique opportunities for anglers and paddle sport enthusiasts. There are also miles of trails, paved and unpaved that welcome walkers, runners, bikers and bird watchers.
It’s a beautiful example of native Florida that almost wasn’t a reality. The property was originally slated for development, but due to market conditions and the cost of making the property suitable for housing, it became available for protection. In the beginning, 337 acres of disturbed farmland was converted to native habitat by Manatee County with the cooperation of Florida Communities Trust Florida Forever Program (FCT) as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Army Corps of Engineers, and Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud).
In 2012, an additional 150 acres were added to the existing preserve with the assistance of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.
The Conservation Foundation, recognizing the popularity of the existing Preserve, came up with a creative solution to permanently conserve the additional acreage. With a grant from the Mosaic Company Foundation, the Conservation Foundation purchased the land and donated it to Manatee County. Manatee County then donated a perpetual conservation easement back to Conservation Foundation. This easement ensures that the land will always remain a natural park.
The 120-acre Neal Preserve is situated on the eastern shore of Sarasota Bay just south of the Manatee Bridge. Acquired in 2005, the site features coastal habitats including mangrove forests, salt terns and oak hammock uplands. The preserve has a 20-foot tall observation tower, shell trails and walkways through the mangrove forest.
This area is home to reconstructed burial mounds that were originally excavated in the 1930s by the Smithsonian Institute. The excavations revealed a site that was inhabited by an Indian culture from 3000 BC to 1400 AD.
The site also protects a rich bay shoreline with mangrove forests that provide habitat and protection for the bay inhabitants.
Like other county conservation sites, Neal Preserve was made possible by partnership. It began with assistance from the FCT, which contributed $3 million to help purchase the site. Swiftmud funded the habitat restoration and the FDEP with the assistance of the US Department of the Interior, Land and Water Conservation funded the construction of the parking lot, pavilion, signage, observation tower, trails and boardwalks. The Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay estuary programs brought together volunteers who became the hands on part of the restoration.
The most recent addition to protected lands, the 176-acre Perico Preserve was originally farm land that has been converted to a mix of coastal wetlands, scrub hills, seagrass lagoon, shorebird nesting island, a gopher tortoise relocation habitat and upland areas reminiscent of historical coastal habitat.
The preserve was planned to allow visitors to view and photograph birds and other animals. The site has a bird blind, one and a half miles of trails that wind through a forested hammock, fresh and saltwater marshes and uplands scrub. Benches, overlooks, bridges and even swings allow visitors an opportunity to connect with nature.
The Perico Preserve was constructed primarily as a bird sanctuary, although it supports a wide variety of wildlife. Dogs, with the exception of service dogs, are not allowed in order to give birds and the other wildlife the best chance of raising their offspring. The same applies to bikes that are only allowed on certain designated trails.
These three preserves provide a glimpse into a rich and diverse natural coastal habitat that once wrapped the whole coast of Florida. These areas provide a vital nursery for the birds, fish and other wildlife that make this part of Florida so special. The three preserves are open from sunrise to sunset seven days a week.