Right in the heart of Venice’s urban core, a new forest is beginning to grow. All along a 1.75 mile strip of land between the Venetian Waterway Trail and the Seaboard Industrial District, palms, oaks and cedars are taking root, birds and small mammals are building nests, and Florida native wildflowers are blooming. What was once the unused and invasive-species-riddled former site of the CSX/Seminole Gulf Railway, Venice’s very own Urban Forest has just completed phase one of its three-stage development plan. The use of this 33-acre strip of land has been given in perpetuity by Sarasota County to VABI—the nonprofit Venice Area Beautification, Inc.—and is in keeping with John Nolen’s 1926 City of Venice urban design plan, which incorporated green spaces and parks throughout the city.
“The Urban Forest was dreamed up seven or eight years ago, but we didn’t have a place for it,” says Greg Vine, chair of VABI’s Urban Forest committee. “When we realized this property was available, we started negotiating with the county. This is the southern end of the Legacy Trail property purchase and runs from Venice Avenue south to Center Road. We broke ground in April 2018, and phase one is now open to the public even as the tree planting continues. We are deliberately re-greening what was an industrial railroad corridor.”
“We didn’t want to just build another park, we wanted to grow a forest,” explains Phil Ellis, the Urban Forest’s project coordinator and vice-chair of VABI’s Urban Forest Committee. “We wanted to give the birds and animals some native, natural habitat that is becoming ever more rare in our county. Trees are important for everybody’s health. Not only do they provide oxygen and sequester carbon, but they filter the storm runoff that flows from the industrial park to the bay and improve coastal resiliency. The forest will be both a green space and a buffer zone. It will benefit the overall ecological health of Venice.”
VABI’s vision and volunteers are brining the new Urban Forest to life. Through thousands of volunteer hours, dedicated local residents have cleared acres of invasive Brazilian pepper trees, and replanted native foliage with an eye toward creating sustainable habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including the threatened Florida scrub jay. Visitors to the Urban Forest will notice that the newly planted trees are young, and the plants just beginning to flourish. But over the coming decades, the forest canopy will develop and create ever more habitat for wildlife.
Shortly after the start of the Urban Forest project, expert birders counted just ten different species of bird at the site. A recent count of birds, however, already noted more than 72 different species.
“This past summer, we had two wild turkeys come in,” says Greg, a Venice native himself. “A native vine we have in the forest produces a berry that they were after.”
“We had two pairs of scrub jays in the forest last summer and fall,” says Phil. “So we had experts from Oscar Scherer come in, as well as our designer, arborist and the Gulf Cost Community Foundation’s Jon Thaxton. They told us we had to plant specific species to help the jays as they come in from Shamrock Park and Caspersen Beach area where there are about 40 birds, and head to Oscar Scherer State Park. We’re planting scrub oak and other food plants they like so they have what they need in the forest if they want to stay. We really want to be a flyway for them and facilitate their travels.”
Developers clearing land elsewhere in the county donated hundreds of native palms. Other trees in the forest include live oak, slash pine, buttonwood, sweetbay magnolias, and red cedars, all trees specific to Venice’s coastal zone. Irrigation and tree and plant purchases have been the project’s major expenses. Expert contributors and volunteers have included the Conservation Foundation’s land manager Lee Amos, the USDA’s Ken Lackman, Simply Trees’ Carol Delehanty, and Sarasota County arborist Sam Wright.
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Selby Foundation, the Catlin Foundation, and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast have all donated to the project, and VABI is always looking for dedicated volunteers and donations.
“So many wonderful volunteers and organizations have come together to make the Urban Forest possible,” says Phil. “This is an oasis in Venice for animals, and for people. It makes us all feel good to be giving something back to our environment.”
For more information or to visit, see: VeniceUrbanForest.com. VABI, 257 N. Tamiami Trail, Venice. 941.207.8224. Admin@vabi.org.