Although the 7,089-acre preserve known as the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area is almost a secret outside of the Sunshine State, local bird watchers and environ- mentalists rave about its large and diverse wildlife population. After only a decade of rehabilitation, the St. Johns River Water Management District, along with support from the Lake County Board of County Commissioners and Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society, has accomplished an astounding feat of creating a viable conservation area and an ecotourism attraction.
The uniqueness of Emeralda Marsh is partly due to its past. In the 1940s the marsh lands to the east of Lake Griffin were drained and converted to agricultural fields and cattle pastures. With the support of the community, the District purchased seven different parcels between 1991 and 1993 that make up the conservation area.
Initial restoration of the area began in 1994 when a wetland treatment marsh was established on more than 1,500 acres of former agricultural fields bordering Lake Griffin and Haynes Creek. The marsh treatment, or flow-ways, helps remove solid materials and nutrients from Lake Griffin.
“The original intent was to clean up the lakes — that was the main focus — and to do that one of the things that had to be stopped was the fertilizer loading into the lakes,” said John Stenberg, a District environmental scientist. “We still have the wildlife habitat benefit so it is like a two-pronged approach where we trap nutrients and increase wildlife habitat.”
From the advanced to the novice bird watcher, Emeralda Marsh presents unlimited opportunities. Known for its varying habitats and sheer size, what separates the conservation area from other preserves is its 4.3-mile wildlife drive. Built atop the dikes in the treatment marsh, the drive provides unbelievable access to the interior of wetland habitats.
“It’s a good place for people to go,” Stenberg said. “Things like a wildlife trail or wildlife drive give people a chance to see it even if they can’t walk that far out. I have talked to people in wheelchairs that are riding around able to go birding. It is a great way to get people in that literally could not make the bike ride or walk that distance.”