Jupiter’s new preserve: Once proposed for mansions, now a public park

Stepping gingerly through the mud between freshly planted mangroves, Carolyn Beisner says kayakers and paddleboarders will love Fullerton Island when it opens June 8.

“The mangroves and sea oats are filling in. The birds and wildlife are coming. There’s manatees. It’s a little piece of nature in an urban area,” said Beisner, senior environmental analyst at the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management.

Hiking trails and a public dock with six slips, along with picnic tables and a shaded pavilion, are ready. There is no running water, electricity, overnight camping, trash receptacles, overnight docking or restrooms. Motorized boats can dock, but can’t power past the entrance, which is only wide enough for kayaks or paddleboards to enter.

It’s all part of the county’s $3 million plan to turn the 12-acre island off Burt Reynolds Park into an open cove area for non-motorized boaters — and boost local ecotourism, said Russ Ruskay, Jupiter’s director of business development.

“Fullerton Island promotes a clean environment. It promotes getting outdoors. It’s part of what Jupiter is,” said Ruskay, a Riviera Beach High grad and former triathlete who grew up in Jupiter.

Even though Fullerton has not officially opened, tour guides at Blue Line Surf and Paddle Co. often bring paddle tours to explore the island, said Carl Soranno, a sales associate at the kayak rental business next to Guanabanas restaurant on the Loxahatchee River.

“It’s a great sanctuary for paddle boarders to get away from boats, especially when its windy,” said Soranno, nodding to the island just west of the kayak rental store.

The road to a preservation area has been a rocky one for the triangle-shaped island. One developer tried to build luxury houses on it. Another proposed a bridge from the mainland.

Opponents beat them back. Jupiter bought the island in 2008 for $2.9 million and designated it as a conservation area. Land clearing for the park began in 2013.

Workers and volunteers cut and uprooted Australian pines, some 2 feet in diameter, and other non-native plants. Stumps and bushes dried in the sun for about three weeks.

The debris was placed in a covered eight-foot-deep fire box dug in the ground. The debris was ignited, and for two weeks a machine forced air rapidly over the box to fan the flames. The higher the temperature, the less pollution from emissions, according to officials from Lake Worth-based Arbor Tree & Land, the company that cleared the land. Burning eliminated the need for the brush to be hauled away.

Backhoes floated to the island by boat dug three-foot-deep meandering channels for watercraft. The 55,000 cubic yards of sand was hauled by barge 22 miles south down the Intracoastal Waterway — underneath nine bridges — to build the Snook Islands preserve project at Lake Worth’s Bryant Park.

The 2,600 mangroves planted on Fullerton Island should be about 5 feet tall and about 5 feet wide in five years. They’ll provide a safe habitat for fish, oysters and crustaceans to hide from predators while they grow into adulthood, said Walker Daughtry, a student technician for the project.

“I’m seeing snook, snapper, mullet, sheepshead. This is becoming a nursery for these fish,” Daughtry said.

About a dozen 30-foot-tall oak trees are on the island. Beisner pointed to an osprey perched in the top branches.

“I’ve also seen spoonbills, blue herons and kingfishers,” she said. “This is an excellent habitat for wildlife.”

On a recent Tuesday morning visit at low tide, a mangrove island was about a foot above the water. Visitors can paddle through the preserve, floating over the seagrass and past the sea oats growing on the banks. Or they can beach their crafts at designated spots and hike through hammocks, mangrove islands and lots of shady areas. Despite the far-away feel of the place, vehicles can be seen and heard through the trees on U.S. 1 and Alternate A1A.

“We are still finding exotics, like this one,” Beisner said, bending to pluck what looked like a non-native Brazilian Pepper plant from the mud. But she left it in place when closer examination showed it was a periwinkle plant.

“We won’t touch that one. It’s native,” she said.

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