The county’s environmental guardians will transform a sprawling 13,000 acres off the Beeline Highway into a wild paradise where people can pass the time fishing, photographing nature or walking through the woods.
Palm Beach County is adding a fishing pier, nature trail and observation tower to the Loxahatchee Slough Natural Area, which it owns and manages on PGA Boulevard west of Florida’s Turnpike.
The new amenities will be north of PGA. The natural area just west of the Mirasol community is also accessible from Riverbend Park in Jupiter and the Karen T. Marcus Sandhill Crane Access Park.
Palm Beach Gardens officials signed off on the plans earlier this month. The county expects to finish the work by summer 2019.
The county manages about 30,000 acres of natural areas from as far south as Boca Raton to as far north as the Martin County line, largely bought with hundreds of millions of dollars approved by voters in 1991 and 1999. The Loxahatchee Slough is the largest, said Frank Griffiths, supervisor with the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management.
It is both an outdoor retreat for city-dwellers and safe haven for wildlife — 57 species of rare or endangered species of plants and animals call it home, Griffiths said.
Deer, bobcats, wild turkeys and other animals also frequent the property.
“It’s really primitive. We’re kind of looking for passive recreation uses, giving people opportunities to enjoy the wildlife, kind of like a smaller national or state park,” Griffiths said.
The county paid about $13 million in 1996 to buy the largest chunk of the slough from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Years earlier the city had supported the foundation’s plans to build a city in the slough but the foundation dropped the plans in the face of strident opposition.
Since buying the property, the county has spent millions restoring it by fixing the drainage and removing exotic plants.
The slough was one of the most melaleuca-infested areas in the county, Griffiths said. Melaleucas crowd out native trees and dry up wetlands.
Now that the land is restored, it’s nearly ready for the public. The additions will cost $450,000 to $500,000, with $200,000 coming from grants. The county will cover the rest.
Plans call for an educational kiosk, a 1,400-foot path leading to an observation platform, a fishing pier with cutouts that make it easier for children and people in wheelchairs to use, a 25-space parking lot on a paved section that used to be a shooting range and a composting toilet.
Anglers can catch and release large-mouth bass, bluegill, catfish, mudfish and sunfish in two lakes.
Some hikers already cross the unspoiled natural area on the 63-mile Ocean to Lake Trail from Lake Okeechobee to the Hobe Sound Beach, Griffiths said.
“We do expect to have quite a bit of use out here, not probably as much as your active parks,” Griffiths told the council. “There are a lot of people that are into photography, wildlife viewing and just getting out and fishing and enjoying nature.”