VENICE — If you plant an urban forest and no one has seen it yet, does it have an impact?

The committee behind this Venice Area Beautification Inc. project can tell you the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

Soon, though, you can see for yourself. Just a few final details need to be attended to so that Sarasota County, which owns the land, will give the OK to open Phase 1 to the public.

The project was announced in April 2018.

When all three phases of the forest are complete, it will occupy a stretch of land about 1.5 miles long, involving about 26 acres.

VABI — which has been leased the land in perpetuity — agreed to design, build and maintain the forest, all at its expense. The total cost is estimated at about $3 million.

Step one was to clear out invasive species and other nonnative vegetation.

“It’s a wild forest; not a park,” committee chair Greg Vine said.

There’s to be no mowing, just weeding.

Some weeds are OK, though, like one called “poor man’s pepper” that attracts butterflies and is edible, he said.

The formerly barren land now sports a couple of butterfly gardens.

The forest started attracting birds almost as soon as work began. Hundreds of them in more than 70 species have been spotted and a bird count done a couple of weeks ago by people from eBird.org, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, totaled 30 species.

The forest is a “large blue circle” on its way to being a hot spot for birding, committee member Phil Ellis said, because it’s on the flight path of numerous species, including scrub jays flying from Shamrock Park to Oscar Scherer State Park.

Adding a hot spot in an area already known for birding will boost ecotourism, he said.

Unlike with Phase 1, the committee has been able to work ahead on the next part of the forest.

“We’re already a long way toward getting Phase 2 started because they let me get the Brazilian peppers out of the way,” Ellis said.

Another difference, he said, is that “Phase 1 was essentially a blank canvas.”

Pulling out invasive species isn’t just Brazilian peppers; a car and a boat, as well as some other junk, has to be cleared out.

The Suncoast Reef Rovers, a dive club that does regular cleanups in local waterways, is bringing out 50 volunteers for one in the forest on Feb. 8, Ellis said.

Donations of time and money are still welcome. In particular, gifts to match a $100,000 Gulf Coast Community Foundation grant are being solicited.

The committee needs about $2,500 to trigger the next $25,000 increment of the grant, Vine said.

They’re optimistic that public support will increase when Phase 1 opens and people who have been watching the forest’s progress from the Venetian Waterway Park can actually experience it.

“The public is infatuated with what we’re doing,” Vine said.

To learn more, visit: VABIUrbanForest.com.

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