In Florida's most crowded county, not far from a greyhound track and a busy thoroughfare, kayakers paddle through a labyrinth of trails that wind for miles under the dense canopy of a stunning mangrove forest.
Floating through those dark, cool tunnels, it's easy to forget that the gleaming high-rise buildings of downtown Tampa loom just on the other side of the bay or that this chunk of Gulf Coast Florida is so developed that there's hardly any available land left.
That's part of the beauty of Weedon Island Preserve, one of the jewels of Pinellas County's patchwork of protected green spaces and wildlife conservation areas. These places account for more than one-tenth of the total land area in a 40-mile-long peninsula better known for white sand beaches and old folks than visionary efforts to protect its few remaining slices of natural Florida.
Given that Pinellas has packed in 3,300 souls per square mile — more than 10 times the average population density of the state — keeping development at bay is an ongoing challenge for the county's environmental planners, who have earned national recognition for their efforts to preserve and manage its wild open spaces.
"(Pinellas) is in redevelopment stage now because of this dense population," said Bruce Rinker, director of the county's Environmental Lands Division who once roamed Amazon rain forests for his studies. "Our goal is to try to contrive a model of urban ecology. And the idea is that if we can get it right here, we use that model to help our neighboring counties."
Pinellas' 925,000 residents make it the sixth most populous among Florida's 67 counties. In size, only one county in the state is smaller. That combination makes it one of the most crowded areas in the southeastern United States.
But there are still places to get away.
Besides the paddling trails, the nearly 6 square miles of Weedon Island Preserve in north St. Petersburg offer miles of hiking trails and an observation tower. Gopher tortoises burrow here while reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills and other wading birds fish in saltwater ponds. Dolphins, sharks and manatees coexist peacefully with kayakers.
At the top of the county, hikers and equestrians can leave the surrounding suburbs and get lost in the pine flatwoods and freshwater swamps of Brooker Creek Preserve. Its 13 square miles are populated with red-shouldered hawks, wild turkeys, bobcats, deer and dozens of threatened or endangered species.
Two other smaller preserves and 10 wildlife management areas are spread throughout the county, which maintains another two dozen public parks and beach access areas.
In 2005, Pinellas County was given one of the first County Leadership in Conservation awards from The Trust for Public Land and the National Association of Counties. Travel writers from the Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star, Detroit Free Press and other newspapers have taken notice, too, marveling at the opportunities here to see, as one put it, "a different side of Florida."
Pinellas tourism officials — who are accustomed to touting the 35 miles of gorgeous shoreline and 360 days of sunshine every year — are reworking their literature to play up those back-to-nature activities.
"People don't necessarily want to sit on the beach for eight hours a day anymore," said G. Lee Daniel, deputy director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They want to come to the beach and enjoy it, but they also want to get out and have a lot of different types of experiences. One of the fastest growing parts of tourism is people going on vacations to learn, to really get involved."