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Tampa biologist gets national award for restoration work

By Yvette C. Hammett
Published: May 14, 2013 Updated: May 14, 2013 at 01:58 PM
Thomas Ries with EcoSphere Restoration Institute is photographed at a recent project at Newman Branch Reserve in Apollo Beach.

Pride, for biologist Tom Ries, comes in the form of meandering wetlands, native grasses and flowers and a flourishing nursery for Tampa Bay’s prized fish. All on private land.He calls the projects P3s -- public-private partnerships -- restoration where it’s needed, not just where public land is available.For years, Ries worked for various agencies whose mission was to restore or recreate wetlands. In 2003, he added another layer, creating a non-profit group to specifically target private landowners willing to partner on restoration projects and give up future development rights.He was recognized for his work last week when he headed to Washington, D.C. to claim the coveted National Wetlands Award for Conservation & Restoration from the Environmental Law Institute.Ries, executive vice president of Scheda Ecological Associates, was honored at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 9.He has been involved in more than 80 habitat restoration and stormwater retrofit projects, resulting in the restoration of more than 2,400 acres of wetlands over the past 25 years. These projects include some of the region’s most ambitious and successful restoration projects, several of which have won local, state and national awards.The Newman Branch Creek project, located on Tampa Electric Company property just south of the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, was the first P3 Ries took on and it has been very successful, he said. His non-profit Ecosphere Restoration Institute for Public Private Partnerships, secured funding for the project, which reconnected old fish farm ponds to create a freshwater wetland and restore Newman Branch Creek to its former meandering route on its way to Tampa Bay.TECO provided the land and agreed to a conservation easement and to maintain the restoration site.“This project has become a model for future restoration projects, especially where available public land is scarce,” said Lindsay Cross, Environmental Science and Policy Manager at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.He’ll soon start his smallest, but arguably his most challenging project – restoring Ulele Spring, a hidden gem off Highland Avenue along the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa that had been piped off, sending fresh spring water pouring in to Tampa Bay.The project involves reconnecting the spring to the Hillsborough River so fish and manatees can access the crystal-clear freshwater flows bubbling up from below. The restoration also will provide 500 feet of “living shoreline” to improve wildlife habitat along the urban estuary. Renowned restaurateur Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group is slated to open Ulele Restaurant on site later this year in the historic Tampa Water Works building.One of the keys to Ries’ success is his ability to bring public and private partners to the table to design and implement these projects.“This approach has significant benefits for the future of Tampa Bay and the public that use the resource,” said Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Henningsen worked with Ries at the district for a decade.“The majority of Tom’s projects involve volunteers in some capacity so the public gains a deeper understanding and appreciation for habitat restoration through hands-on experience,” said Nicole Adimey, Tampa Bay Coastal Program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She nominated Ries for the national award.The National Wetlands Awards program is administered by the Environmental Law Institute and supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service, and the Federal Highway Administration. A committee of wetland experts representing federal, state and local governments, academia, and nonprofit organizations selects the award recipients.