NEW: 13,000 wild acres in Gardens to get fishing pier, trail

12:47 p.m Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 Local
Frank Griffiths, an environmental program supervisor, points out where the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management plans to build a fishing pier in the Loxahatchee Slough off the Beeline Highway, just north of PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens. The 12,841-acre property is the largest of the county’s natural areas. Freshwater fisherman can also catch and release fish along the shoreline. Opening in 2019, the area will have wildlife observation platforms and miles of trails, if approved by Palm Beach Gardens. (Sarah Peters/The Palm Beach Post)

What looks like nothing more than a pull-off along the Beeline Highway is actually 13,000 acres of public land teeming with wildlife that will eventually have a fishing pier, miles of hiking trails and observation platforms.

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The amenities will be in the Loxahatchee Slough, just north of PGA Boulevard and across from the Karen T. Marcus Sandhill Crane Access Park. The slough is the largest of the county’s 30-plus natural areas.

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Palm Beach Gardens still needs to sign off on the plans, and the new features won’t be ready for use until 2019, said Frank Griffiths, environmental program supervisor for the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management.

“The thought process on this is that it’s like a destination,” Griffiths said. “There will be a lot of opportunities for people.”

The access park is more suited for hiking, biking and equestrians, while this area will be more suited for people who want to lose themselves in the woods, he said.

The largely untouched natural area will be especially appealing to fishermen, hikers and nature photographers, he said.

For serious hikers, the 63-mile Ocean to Lake Trail runs through the 12,841-acre property. The trail connects Lake Okeechobee and Hobe Sound Beach and can be hiked in segments or all at once. Hikers can also walk for miles along maintenance roads or unimproved paths through the wetlands and uplands.

For people who prefer a more leisurely walk, there will be a 0.3-mile concrete nature trail from the parking lot to a handicap-accessible wildlife observation platform, Griffiths said.

A 34-foot-tall elevated observation platform will be strategically positioned to overlook an open grassland where deer graze.

Griffiths spotted a bobcat, a tri-colored heron, four deer and seven turkeys on a tour of the site Wednesday morning. He pointed to wild hog tracks along a maintenance road and culverts where young alligators gather when the conditions are right. In the spring, when the water tables drop, wading birds feed on a smorgasbord of fish gathered in puddles, he said.

Freshwater fishermen can catch and release large-mouth bass, brim/bluegill, catfish, bowfin/mudfish and sunfish from a short fishing pier or the shoreline around a pond.

The county acquired most of the land from the MacArthur Foundation as a result of the property being a shooting range in the 1960s, and the natural area will use some of the old range’s parking. It’s also been used for tomato farming and cattle.

The county spent about $2.1 million throughout the 2000s to fill in the agricultural ditches and correct the flow of water. The move helps prevent flooding, recharge aquifers that are used to provide drinking water and push back saltwater intrusion in the Loxahatchee River. State and federal grants paid for about $1.7 million of that restoration work, Griffiths said.

It will cost about $450,000 to $500,000 to improve access and add amenities to the natural area. Grant money will pay for $200,000, and the county’s natural area fund will pay for the rest, Griffiths said.

The sale of development rights, lease revenue from farmers and an endowment support that fund.