SUN CITY — Gus Muench has harvested blue crabs in and around Cockroach Bay for 37 years. The Ruskin man also has led stalwart adventurers on what he calls “a walk in the footsteps of the Indians,” wading, walking and swimming to the islands that form the archipelago hugging Tampa Bay's southern fringe.
The 12-mile Uzita Trail, as Muench calls his low-tide excursions, follows the aquatic highway once traveled by Timucuan Indians who slogged through the waters in ancient times, spearing fish and gathering shellfish.
In 1986, Muench helped lead an effort to protect these islands — including one called Big Cockroach Mound — from encroaching humanity. On Wednesday he was pleased to learn the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program had bought the 3-acre island, which contains an ancient Indian mound and plants found nowhere else in the county, for $100,000.
It is the last island in the chain to come under government protection.
Hillsborough County officials finalized the purchase within days of a planned celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of its environmental lands program, which now manages 61 properties with more than 61,500 acres of sensitive wildlife and plant corridors crisscrossing the county. It is one of the largest land acquisition programs in Florida. Muench said he plans to attend the festivities.
The celebration takes place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, far north of Cockroach Bay, at the Lake Frances Nature Preserve in Odessa. The event, which is free, includes guided tours by land and by pontoon boat on the lake, so visitors can see the habitat and wildlife their tax dollars help to protect. The park is at 10225 Woodstock Road.
Former Gov. Bob Martinez and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, after whom the land program is named, plan to attend.
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Gingerly maneuvering past black mangrove roots that stick up like fingers along the island's shore, ELAPP Manager Ross Dickerson traversed Big Cockroach Mound this week for the first time in more than a decade.
“It's a really cool place,” he said, pointing out a ground nest containing two turkey vulture eggs, as he passed oyster, whelk and conch shells strewn across a tangle of red mangrove roots.
Subtropical gumbo limbo and wild lime trees poke above white mangroves and invasive Brazilian peppers, rooted in the Indian midden created here between A.D. 700 and 1500.
The mound, once the highest spot in Hillsborough County, was made with discarded oyster, conch and clam shells, and scientists have found portions of some 224 human skeletons, primitive tools and pottery in the mound. Through the years, Dickerson said, poachers have dug on the island to retrieve artifacts — “It's pretty much been pillaged” — and its height has eroded since the early 1900s, when boat-tour groups visited from St. Petersburg to get an unobstructed view of their city from across Tampa Bay.
“The coolest thing about this island is that it takes on a more tropical nature” than the surrounding area, Dickerson said.
There are plants and trees on Big Cockroach Mound found nowhere else in Hillsborough County, thanks to the height of the midden and the shoreline location that protects vegetation from freezes, said Steve Dickman, ELAPP's self-described “plant geek” who has studied the area. Dickman said other plants on the island include Jamaican dogwood, Jamaican capper, nicker bean, white stopper, firebush and strangler fig. This is the northern range for most of those native species, he said.
“The family that owned this island, they were never interested in selling it,” Dickerson said. “But finally they came to us and said they were ready.” The county acquired the property from the James L. Symmes trust, using the voter-approved tax money for ELAPP purchases.
“There was a time when there was talk about developing around here,” Dickerson said. “They even tried to build a bridge over to it at one time.”
Now it sits among some 103 acres of protected island property known as the Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park. Local lore has it the area got its name from early explorers who observed many horseshoe crabs in the area, and likened them to giant cockroaches.
Hillsborough County manages some 800 acres of uplands along the shoreline while the state takes care of the islands. Dickerson said he doesn't know if the state will reimburse the county and take over Big Cockroach Mound as part of the aquatic preserve and state park.
For now he is planning to get the island on the ELAPP work schedule to remove exotic plant species such as the Brazilian peppers. He expects some 60 percent of the island's vegetation is invasive species that should be removed.
Some areas of the island are filled with large, healthy red mangrove trees whose roots provide a nursery environment for young redfish and snook, and a hunting ground for birds such as a night heron seen stalking along its perimeter this week.
Dickerson said county officials want to determine which bird species, besides turkey vultures, use the island to roost or nest. And the site likely will be a target during the next “Give A Day for the Bay” cleanup event to remove discarded shoes, bottles, cans and fishing bobbers that have washed onto its shore.
While Dickerson said he expects people will visit the island once the invasive plants are removed, there is no plan to establish trails. And digging for artifacts, Dickerson said, is prohibited by both state and federal law.