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'Sick forest' will be cleared

Trees and other plants on 151 acres near Weeki Wachee Springs will be cut or burned to make room for other species and to reduce the wildfire threat.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

WEEKI WACHEE -- A trail east of U.S. 19 led Mary Barnwell and August Fox into an inviting forest of wild olive bushes, myrtle oaks and sand pines as tall as 40 feet.

The two biologists with the Southwest Florida Water Management District have a strategy to improve this forest, but they expect that some residents will have a hard time understanding it.

The district plans to cut down every pine tree on this tract, as well as on property it owns on the west side of U.S. 19. -- a total of 151 forested acres.

It will then burn the vegetation that remains on the property, all of which is part of the 560 acres around Weeki Wachee Springs that the district bought last year from St. Petersburg.

Sunshine Palms Inc., a Leesburg timber company, will begin clearing the land before the end of the month, Fox said. The company will pay the district about $10,000 for the trees it removes from the property.

By clearing the land, the district will create open areas preferred by animals native to scrub habitat, including the gopher tortoise, a threatened species, and the once-abundant scrub jay, which bird-watchers say has become extremely rare in Hernando County.

The program also will reduce the potential for an out-of-control wildfire. Because the land has not burned in a long time and because the trees have grown close together, a fire would very likely jump to the neighborhoods around the woods, Barnwell said. About 75 houses border the land the district plans to clear.

"Our main goal is to reduce the threat of forest fires," she said.

But the clearing also will reduce the highly visible forest to a scorched and barren tract.

"It will be a drastic change in appearance," Fox said.

Dave Lowerre, owner of Weeki Wachee Canoe Rental near the spring head, put it more bluntly:

"Ugly as hell when it first happens, but absolutely necessary in the long run."

Lowerre, who also owns a house adjacent to the woods, approves of the plan, as do most environmental activists in the area.

"I can't wait. I want a healthy forest to look at. I don't want a sick forest."

That is an accurate description of the property in its current state, Barnwell said.

"It has a very low biological diversity," she said.

Sand pines grow naturally in scrub habitat, but frequent fires, which had historically been ignited by lightning, kept them from becoming dominant. Once they grow tall enough to form a canopy -- as they have on the Swiftmud property -- their shade discourages the growth of other plants that provide most of the food for wildlife, including various grasses, gopher apples and prickly pear cactus, Barnwell said.

The burning also will encourage the growth of wildflowers and a threatened plant species, Curtis' milkweed.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission clear cut about 80 acres it manages west of the springs three years ago, a process so thorough that the results shocked even some people who supported it.

Though some species have begun to grow on the land, it remains mostly barren.

"It was a lot nicer to walk down to the water when all the trees were there," said Niki Everitt, a member of the Gulf Coast Conservancy.

Despite that, she and other members of her group, which was one of the most prominent voices urging the district to buy the land for preservation, said they trust the district to do what is best.

"They are trying to get it back to its native habitat," she said.

"And it is a tremendous fire hazard. From my understanding, sand pines are very, very dangerous."

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