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Land could become rest stop for wildlife

Officials consider acquiring 1,420 acres as a link for animals traveling between the Citrus and Hernando tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002

FLORAL CITY -- It would be like a pit stop for wildlife commuting between Citrus and Hernando counties.

State and county officials are looking into acquiring a 1,420-acre tract of wooded sandhills, just south of County Road 480 (Stage Coach Road) and west of U.S. 41, for use as conservation land.

The land could provide a stopover for indigo snakes, black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers, Sherman's fox squirrels and other critters traveling between the Citrus and Hernando tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest, said Gary Maidhof, the county's director of Development Services.

In the long run, the former farmland also could provide the first piece of a wildlife corridor that would someday link the two forest tracts, he said.

"I think you can see what benefit there would be if you've got a wildlife and recreation area that is that large, that's all connected," said county Commissioner Jim Fowler, who will bring the issue before his fellow commissioners Tuesday.

Here's the kicker: Under the proposal, the county would get the $5.5-million property without spending a dollar, aside from staff time.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is negotiating to buy half the property from the owner, Citrus Farm and Timber Co. of Brooksville, using state funds earmarked for purchasing gopher tortoise habitat.

The state agency, which likes to create conservation land but not own it, would then give roughly 700 acres to Citrus County.

The county would apply next year for a state grant to buy the remaining 700-some acres. The county would have to pony up a match for the grant from Florida Communities Trust; instead of money, Maidhof said, the county would offer the first 700 acres.

"There would be staff time, and it's a rather elaborate application," Maidhof said. "But I think we would score high (in the rankings for a grant). It's got a lot of nice, attractive values to it."

Aside from providing wildlife habitat to several struggling species, the land could also feature "passive" recreational uses, such as walking trails and picnic tables, he said.

"This isn't just more land for critters," Maidhof said. "There's recreational components that can be made a part of this, too."

The County Commission will decide Tuesday whether to go along with the plan, but the measure already has county Commissioner Jim Fowler's whole-hearted support.

There would be no financial impact to the county, he said, other than losing about $854 a year in county taxes once the land comes off the tax rolls. As it is now, the property brings in little tax because of its agricultural classification.

"There would be a small amount (of tax revenue lost). Generally, I'm not in favor of more land in Citrus County going into government hands," Fowler said. "But this is a small parcel that would connect these two (forest) tracts, and I think that's a good idea."

The 1,420-acre parcel would be the first piece of that corridor. Assembling the rest of the corridor would take time, money and cooperation, Maidhof said.

The state or county would only buy properties from willing sellers, he said. "There is no interest in buying or condemning people's homes or anything like that," Maidhof said.

The state dollars also would have to be available for such land buys, he said.

Even if a continuous corridor cannot be pieced together, every parcel provides a natural resting spot for wildlife on the go and new territories for expanding species, Maidhof said.

For example, red-cockaded woodpeckers have staked out much of the Citrus tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, but they are scarce in the Hernando tract.

"These types of sites (for a corridor), if acquired, would provide an excellent bridge to help red-cockaded woodpeckers work south and help establish themselves in those areas," Maidhof said.

At the county's suggestion, Florida Fish & Wildlife is looking at other properties that may fit into a wildlife corridor. Piecing together a 3- or 4-mile swath of land may be a challenge, though.

"Ultimately, we may never be able to do the entire corridor," Maidhof said. "But any time you provide these stepping stones, you make it easier for the wildlife."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or .

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