The beauty and serenity of Hillsborough County's protected environmental lands has been captured in 13 photographs gracing a new calendar available free to the public.
"I've been trying to get a calendar done like this for 11 years, and this will be our first," said Ross Dickerson, general manager for the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP.
The ELAPP calendar is available at Hillsborough County libraries and other locations.
Citizens from around the county submitted 187 photographs they shot at ELAPP sites, from Ruskin to Plant City and elsewhere. Then people voted for their favorites on the county's Facebook page.
A committee narrowed the top 20 vote-getters down to 13. Of those, a photographer from Temple Terrace took nine of the slots, including the cover, featuring a sunset at Apollo Beach Preserve.
George Veazey said he spent days and many hours patiently waiting for the right shots. Among his photographs that will be featured in the calendar are one of a bobcat in Riverview, a Florida scrub jay in Gibsonton and a pair of deer at a preserve in Plant City.
The retired Hillsborough County Sheriff's sergeant said once he found out about the photo contest, he went "full-court press" to get some winning shots.
"My career in law enforcement has taught me patience," Veazey said. "There are two kinds of photographers: those that want to document the here and now and those willing to stand there for two or three hours and get what they are looking for. I'm in the second category."
For others, the winning photos were happenstance.
Mariella Smith was riding her bicycle around Ruskin running errands one day when she received a text photo from her husband in Chicago, who was visiting Wrigley Field.
"He was so excited to be there, and I wanted to share with him what I was doing," Smith said.
She took the long way home, stopping off at Wolf Branch Preserve and walking her bike through the access point.
"The sky was just beautiful and the light was so pretty," she said. "I just snapped a picture while I was walking along."
The photo she shot with her iPhone features a serene shoreline in Tampa Bay dotted with mangroves and cabbage palms.
"This picture could be taken nowhere else," she told Dickerson in her description. "ELAPP gives us the opportunity to get to know the real Florida, right in our own backyard. These local experiences of Florida give visitors an authentic sense of place, and give residents an authentic sense of home."
Because Smith sits on the selection committee for ELAPP, she had not considered actually entering the photo contest, she said. She entered her photo to draw more people to the site to vote on pictures.
"I never expected it to be chosen," Smith said. "But it does show that just bicycling by and snapping a quick photograph, you can capture such beauty on these ELAPP sites."
Dickerson said the photos offer a window into what people can see when they actually visit the sites.
In all, there are 61 ELAPP sites now all over Hillsborough County and almost all have public access, with the remainder closed while restoration takes place.
"This photo contest was a way for us to promote ELAPP and the beauty of the sites," he said.
Other locations featured in the calendar include Bell Creek Preserve in Riverview, Alderman's Ford Preserve south of Plant City and east of Balm and Triple Creek Preserve off Balm-Boyette Road.
To pick up a calendar, go to the ELAPP office at Bell Creek Preserve, 10940 McMullen Road, Riverview, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Cockroach Bay Preserve at 3709 Gulf City Road in Ruskin Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to5:30 p.m. (but call ahead at (813) 671-7754); or Lake Frances Preserve at 10225 Woodstock Road, Odessa from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday (call ahead at (813) 264-8513).