Protecting Water Resources, Habitats and Wildlife
Written by Jessica Pilkins
Charlotte Harbor is America’s 17th largest estuary and Florida’s second largest open-water estuary. In 1995 it was recognized as an estuary of national significance and accepted into the National Estuary Program. Charlotte Harbor and our surrounding areas offer a diverse ecosystem that is important to wildlife and the people that reside near them. Protected land and environmental systems such as these are significant in any location, but they don’t offer much to community members unless they are utilized in some way. With the help of one organization, much of these protected areas can be used for recreation and to educate people while still maintaining the natural qualities.
The Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (CHEC) is a private non-profit made up of local community members who work to maintain Alligator Creek and Cedar Point parks while providing education to local residents. For the last 25 years the organization has maintained the two parks while offering a number of environmental tours, trips and hands-on educational programs. “Conservation is developed through education,” said Jim Thomson, CEO of CHEC. This was the main thought behind developing the group.
Established in 1987 by a group of Charlotte County community leaders who felt there was a need for environmental education, CHEC wanted children and adults to be able to experience Florida as it was hundreds of year ago, before population growth and expansion. The collaboration of state, county and city officials with the private sector created an organization and location that can be utilized in a number of different ways. A 20-acre site was leased to the organization from the state at its inception. The park, Alligator Creek Preserve, is located in Punta Gorda. It is adjacent to the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park (CHPSP), which encompasses over 30,000 acres and protects the included environment, wildlife and shoreline. This park is where CHEC began and operated from initially. The park includes a visitor’s center with nature exhibits, Calusa Indian exhibits and miles of well-marked trails.
In the 1990’s, the group began managing Cedar Point Environmental Park in Englewood for the county. Cedar Point is 115 acres in Charlotte County and also includes a visitor’s center, exhibits and trails. The park provides a home for nesting American bald eagles. Both parks are free and open to residents for hiking and tours as well as educational programs that are held at the centers. Jim explained that the center does not just offer education but “hands on enjoyable education opportunities. Hopefully we can develop behavioral changes where actions will be beneficial to the environment and not harmful.” Wading trips, river bus tours, guided hikes and educational workshops are offered at both parks, including estuary boat rides. One goes up the Peace River and explores the marine and wildlife of the estuary and the other explores the seabeds of Lemon Bay. CHEC also has a close relationship with local schools. They offer two-day field trips for 4th grade students, estuary and manatee programs for 3rd graders, and wading trips for 2nd grade students. Both CHEC locations are used as environmental research locations. Members and volunteers participate in water monitoring programs at six locations along Charlotte Harbor and 17 on Lemon Bay. The water samples test the quality of the water at any given time during the year. At Cedar Point Park, the water samples monitor bacteria in Lemon Bay and other factors and changes in the estuaries, including salinity, dissolved oxygen and total nitrogen.
CHEC is funded and supported through grants, sponsorships, memberships, donations and other programs. The organization consists of 15 board members that include community members, local professionals and retired professionals. Much of the daily work that is done at the parks is done by volunteers, such as leading trail walks and maintaining the facilities. “We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. We have about 100 volunteers who donate about 6,000 hours a year of their own time doing walks and maintaining facilities,” said Jim. “Our volunteers are a great group, they’re very dedicated people.” Residents can become members by paying a $25 annual membership fee. Friends and members of CHEC will receive a copy of the newsletter by email with program and activity updates as well as a membership card that entitles the user to a 10% discount in the park gift shop. The organization also accepts donations and anyone can become a volunteer for a number of different positions including greeter, trail guide or work crew member. CHEC will be holding training workshops in October for volunteers who wish to become
Alligator Creek Preserve is located at 10941 Burnt Store Road in Punta Gorda. Cedar Point Environmental Park is located at 2300 Placida Road in Englewood. If you are interested in any of the workshops or environmental trips, call (941) 575-5435 for Alligator Creek or (941) 475-0769 for Cedar Point Park to make a reservation as they fill up fast. To learn more about Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center and their programs, visit www.checflorida.org or find CHEC on facebook.