St. Petersburg’s Boyd Hill Nature Preserve has long been treasured as a peaceful retreat – or, as Elizabeth M. Verbeck’s history of the park puts it, a “unique, green, quiet corner” – amid the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city.
Starting today, however, this quiet corner will be a little busier.
After five years of planning and renovations, the section of the park between Lake Maggiore’s western shore and 31st Street South (known as the Environmental Studies Area) will offer the public some exciting new ways to enjoy this remnant of primordial Pinellas. For day-use hikers, trails will now be open between the Environmental Education Center (located at 1101 Country Club Way S.) and the 31st Street section of the park on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. If you have always been curious about what lies beyond the end of the Lakeside Trail, now is your chance to find out.
For campers, the new Terry Tomalin Campground (see related story)will feature 12 primitive tent camping sides, six newly renovated cabins and a new group campsite by the picturesque Osprey’s Roost activity center (RV camping is not allowed). Rates will compare favorably with most state and county parks, at $30/night for tent sites, $40/night for cabins, and $50 per night for group camping.
Special programming including night hikes, campfire programs and guided nature walks will be available to campers. “We really want to attract hyperlocal residents,” explains Boyd Hill Nature Preserve Supervisor Andrea Andersen, “including folks from Midtown, local school groups, and scouting groups, as well as tourists.”
Barbara Stalbird, Nature Preserve Supervisor for St. Petersburg, agrees, explaining that the campgrounds are designed to welcome “first time campers who don’t want to travel too far from home, with neat introductory experiences in things like how to build a fire, set up a tent, or cook over a fire.”
The renovations also include Hammock Hall, a new facility equipped with a ranger station, a 50-person classroom, and a banquet hall that holds up to 100 people. This space will be available for rental (though not during the summer months), and will also host monthly Florida History speakers, as well as a revival of Boyd Hill’s Natural History speaker series, October-April.
Changes are afoot at the Pinellas Pioneer Settlement, too. The park will be open every Saturday ($5 per person admission charge), with a morning tour of the site’s historic structures and an afternoon pioneer skills demonstration. The Pioneer Settlement is also supporting an expansion of Boyd Hill’s internship program, which currently sponsors positions in environmental education and in land management, to include a new position in Florida history. History interns will assist with new acquisitions for building displays, inventorying the collection, and creating programming and exhibits. And for kids who love hands-on learning, the Pioneer Settlement will also begin hosting an after school 4-H program. “We are expecting this to fill very quickly,” notes Andersen enthusiastically.
In many ways, these new developments seem very much aligned with the original purpose of the Environmental Studies Area, which the City purchased from Ruth Kirby in 1980 with the assistance of nearly $470,000 from the Florida Department of Natural Resources. Among other things, this support required the park to provide facilities and programming for environmental education, space for public meetings and accommodations for disabled patrons.
But the new growth also dovetails quite naturally with a pandemic-era surge in interest in outdoor activities and experiences. Though the park stopped collecting admission in March 2020, visitation boomed and the number of new memberships skyrocketed. “We did not miss out on visitation,” Stalbird recalls of the last 15 months. “In fact, we learned how important these spaces really are.” This demand continues into the summer, with the park’s summer camp programs selling out in a matter of minutes.
The high quality of St. Petersburg’s parks, including Boyd Hill, was recently commended by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit with the mission of creating parks and protecting land for people. St. Petersburg ranked first in Florida and 14th in the nation in the Trust’s ParkScore index, which assesses five factors including how readily residents can access parks; acreage set aside for parkland; park spending per resident; amenities available within parks; and how equitably parks are distributed across race and income demographics within cities. St. Pete scored particularly high in the categories of investment and equity – achievements which are clearly reflected in Boyd Hill’s renovations. “Nature parks don’t always get the resources they deserve,’ notes Stalbird, “but that’s not the case here. The city administration has been very supportive of this since day one.”
But, as students of Florida history will note, popularity can be a mixed blessing for our natural areas, since recreational usage often comes into conflict with ecological integrity. In recent years, conflicts have arisen in other St. Petersburg parks, such as Maximo, where disc golfing was thought to threaten archaeological remains, or Weedon Island, where high lead levels have been linked to the presence of the nearby Skyway Gun Club.
Much thought has gone into how to balance new access to Boyd Hill’s quieter side with environmental concerns, Stalbird explains. For instance, trails are designed to leave large pockets of land intact, allowing space for visitors to enjoy the preserve while nonhuman residents feed and nest undisturbed. Similarly, campsites were built only in areas that were already open, so no additional land needed to be cleared. The park, she says, is maintaining a cautious approach, starting with a limited availability of campsites and keeping an eye on usage and impact.
“Boyd Hill is a special place,” says Stalbird. “It is such a dynamic and unique experience within the city and the county. It has a strong environmental education component, a captive injured wildlife program that is not available in other parks, and the integrity of the natural areas within the park is strong.”