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The Planet

No Blues for This Bayou

by Jenny Coyle

To hear Beth Connor talk about Clam Bayou, you'd think it was the wildest place on Earth instead of an 87-acre wetland on the edge of Florida's most densely populated county.

"The bayou is a series of mangrove-lined lagoons," said Connor, a Sierra Club organizer in Florida. "You can't stand out there for more than a minute without seeing a fish jump or a bird fly by. I was out there once when all the morning birds were just flying out, and all the birds that had been out all night were flying back in. It was a major bird traffic jam. There are roseate spoonbills, fish hawks and ospreys, and in the winter there are manatees and dolphins and sea turtles."

Sadly, there are no clams in Clam Bayou. Polluted runoff and sewage overflow from development on a floodplain will do that. Further damaging this little ecosystem, bordering the cities of St. Petersburg and Gulfport, was a dump on its west shore.

But Clam Bayou is getting a second chance.

The Club's Suncoast Group, led by Conservation Chair Patricia Kiesylis, chose the protection of the bayou as its first Environmental Public Education Campaign in 1998 and is finally tasting success. Working with other community activists, the group convinced the Southwest Florida Water Management District to purchase Clam Bayou from a private developer who wanted to build condominiums on the site. They also persuaded the St. Petersburg City Council to manage the bayou as a wildlife refuge.

"They'd only managed ballfields and parks -- never a wild piece of property," said Connor. "Part of our work was educating the city about how a piece of property can be acquired and left alone and still be okay."

The victory took a lot of work. Activists collected 5,000 signatures on postcards by tabling at "all the outdoor festivals we could get to," Connor said. They set up ironing boards at health food stores and handed out educational materials, and hung posters in shop windows urging residents to call their city council members.

They held beach cleanups and arranged field trips to the bayou for school children. On one school visit, local photographer Charlie Alaimo donated drawing tablets and crayons so the kids could sketch what they saw at Clam Bayou. And wildlife zoologist Laurie Macdonald (who just won a Sierra Club award; see page 7) talked about the area's endangered species and indigenous creatures.

"When we had really kicked up the dust, we sort of put it on autopilot and left it up to the water district, the city and the landowner to reach an agreement," said Connor.

The $1.4 million deal was signed on Aug. 22.

"This will mean improved and protected habitat for the remaining wildlife in the area, and it should also lead to improved water quality in the bayou and in the Boca Ciega Bay, where it drains," Connor said.

Suncoast Group members are rolling up their sleeves again, this time to convince the city to fund the removal of exotic species in the bayou -- namely Brazilian pepper and melaluca. They also want the city to acquire 20 acres of uplands to the south of Clam Bayou in order to complete the ecosystem.

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