While working as a consultant on a marina in the Tampa Bay watershed, Tom Ries had an “aha” moment that changed his life. The marina’s developer expressed a willingness to preserve 25 acres of prime bayfront property for use as a public park, and gave Tom six months to get it done. Tom successfully worked with the developer, a local government, and regional water managers to purchase and preserve this valuable waterfront parcel on the Manatee River. The resulting Palmetto Estuary Preserve was the first public-private-partnership (P3) for habitat restoration objectives in the Tampa Bay region. This project subsequently won regional significance when it was bestowed with the award of Environmental Project of the Year.
That experience made Tom realize the need for an independent non-profit organization that could bring diverse partners together and leverage their resources and expertise to promote more P3s. He launched the non-profit Ecosphere Restoration Institute in 2002.
Ecosphere has completed 22 major projects, restoring 322 acres of fish and wildlife habitat and directly enhancing 1,800 acres more in the Tampa Bay watershed. Ecosphere’s public and private partners include NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TECO, the City of Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Community volunteers have contributed thousands of hours of “sweat equity” to the cause.
Ecosphere is proud of its track record in boosting the Tampa Bay economy. Ecosphere projects have employed 88 local companies, from engineering and survey firms, to heavy equipment operators and archaeologists, and even wildlife biologists.
One Ecosphere project, Tom’s Lost River Preserve, was the only in the region – and one of only three in Florida – awarded a federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant during the Great Recession. Lost River provided welcomed jobs for local businesses during the recession while creating valuable fish habitat.
The restoration of a forgotten, neglected freshwater spring on the edge of Tampa’s downtown is perhaps the best-known of Ecosphere’s achievements. Ulele Spring is the popular centerpiece of a lively entertainment and residential district, an urban oasis for manatees, fish, wading birds, and people.
Tom’s work in creating innovative living shorelines has placed Tampa Bay at the forefront of national restoration efforts. He has pioneered techniques to make shorelines more resilient to rising water levels by using natural plants and materials instead of concrete seawalls. Ecosphere’s newest project is a collaboration with the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to create 1,000 feet of living seawall along downtown Tampa’s renowned Riverwalk pedestrian trail.
Ecosphere’s collaborative approach seeks to leave a legacy of healthy ecosystems that support fish and wildlife, protect water quality and provide opportunities – even in highly urbanized areas – for residents of all backgrounds to experience and enjoy natural Florida.
Tom Ries is the president and founder of Ecosphere Restoration Institute, Inc.
Ecosphere Restoration Institute is a member of Restore America’s Estuaries’ Affiliate Member Program. Learn more and join this network today »