Parking lot will open doors to Ten Thousand Islands

— Southwest Florida residents will soon have a new gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

A much-needed public parking lot is being built about 2.8 miles east of the intersection of County Road 92 and U.S. 41, a few miles past Collier-Seminole State Park. A boardwalk leading from the parking lot will connect to an existing one-mile hiking trail, which will lead to a new observation tower that has yet to be built.

Visitors will be able to park in a previously inaccessible marsh area and enjoy recreational activities, including canoeing, kayaking, limited duck hunting, fishing and hiking, officials said.

“It’s going to open up a whole new realm of public use off of U.S. 41,” said Florida Panther Refuge manager Ben Nottingham. “We hope to gain more people in fishing, wildlife observation and wildlife photography.”

The parking lot project is expected to be finished in six months, Larry Richardson, a wildlife biologist for the Florida Panther and Ten Thousands Islands National Wildlife Refuges.

Construction of the new $767,000 public parking lot, which will include 18 vehicle spaces, off of U.S. 41 started Monday.

Total cost for the less than 2-acre parking lot, boardwalk, canoe ramp and turning lanes was $847,000 which is being built by New Jersey-based Puente Construction, Nottingham said.

Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge received a $785,000 grant from Florida Department of Transportation’s enhancement fund.

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta strongly supports the new wildlife amenity, which has been needed for some time, he said.

Coletta has offered to write a proclamation to bring community awareness to the new amenity.

Part of the construction will be to install signs on the road that will alert people of the refuge location, Richardson said.

Construction of the new parking lot will impact about half an acre of wetland, officials said.

As part of the overall master plan an observation tower will be built within three or four months, Nottingham said. It will be handicap accessible.

The cost of the tower is yet to be determined.

Eventually, wildlife interpretive signs will be installed to enhance visitors’ understanding of the refuge operations, Nottingham said.

Nottingham said he hopes the new facility will increase visitors from more than a dozen to hundreds in two years.

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