By ERIC STAATS
Posted September 30, 2012 at 5 p.m.
PHOTO BY MICHEL FORTIER, BONITA DAILY NEWS //BUY THIS PHOTO
A time exposure shows the ebb and flow of brackish water past thick tangles of red mangrove branches jutting into the water providing a safe haven for a variety of young fish and other aquatic life.
NORTH NAPLES — A North Naples mangrove preserve soon could become a real-world laboratory to test how the important ecosystems stand up to losing some leaves and limbs.
The experiment is part of a deal between the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Barefoot Beach Club that will allow the condominium to trim mangroves in a 5.5-acre county-owned preserve annually to open up the waterfront view of Little Hickory Bay.
Collier County commissioners gave the OK to the trimming this summer but directed the two sides to hash out a specific plan. That plan could go back to commissioners in October.
The plan is an example of how the public and private sectors can work together for the good of the environment and all sides can get something out of the deal, Barefoot Beach Club attorney John Fumero said.
"I think it's a template to things we should be doing all over Florida," he said.
The Conservancy, though, sees the deal as a test case, not an open door to allowing mangrove trimming in other Collier County preserves, the group's leader said.
"We're trying to avoid setting a precedent," Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said.
Mangroves are the engine that drive the food chain of Southwest Florida's estuaries. Their leaves provide nutrients when they drop, and birds nest in mangrove branches. Below the water's surface, mangrove roots are a nursery for fish and a feeding spot.
Trimming mangroves at Barefoot Beach Club has a controversial history. In 2003, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a mangrove trimming permit, the Conservancy objected. The group said the trimming violated a deal the group made to settle a 1985 lawsuit over development at Barefoot Beach and ran afoul of a conservation easement intended to protect the mangroves.
The new deal between Barefoot Beach Club and the Conservancy sets out an elaborate monitoring program and a strict set of rules about where and how much trimming can be done.
Before any trimming, and then every year for five years, the Conservancy will set a baseline for the forest's health by measuring how much light penetrates the canopy of the forest.
Every five years, if the measurements show a "significant decrease" in forest health, the annual trimming has to stop until the forest recovers, the plan says. If the forest stays, the annual trimming can continue for another five years.
Before each annual trim, the health of individual trees to be trimmed also will be measured. If the trees aren't healthy, they can't be trimmed, according to the deal.
Assessments of the effects of trimming on overall forest health and health of individual trees will require a consensus between the Conservancy and the Barefoot Beach Club experts. If no consensus can be reached, the two sides will seek a third-party expert opinion.
The agreement between Barefoot Beach Club and the Conservancy allows far less mangrove trimming than allowed by Florida law, which allows cutting back mangroves to 6 feet tall.
No mangrove tree less than 20 feet tall can be trimmed, and no mangrove tree can be trimmed shorter than 20 feet. Above 20 feet, mangroves can only be trimmed strategically to open up views but leave clumps of leaves and branches at the tops of the trees.
Red mangroves are off-limits to any trimming because they are especially sensitive to trimming; the trimming also is limited to about half of the mangrove forest.
Fumero said the plan means condo residents will get their views back, the mangrove forest will be monitored for the first time since it was set up in the 1970s and county taxpayers won't have to pay for it.
"It's the proverbial win-win-win," he said.