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An oasis amid chronic sprawl of humanity

As the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge marks 100 years of preservation, the county's sanctuaries flourish.

[Times photo: Stephen Coddington]
A boat winds through the creeks of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Friday morning.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

CHASSAHOWITZKA -- The airboat coughed a white cloud of exhaust and with a final shudder, fell still. As if on cue, a bald eagle dove from the brilliant blue sky and plucked a crab from the water.

For a moment, no one spoke.

Amid the salt marshes of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, man is insignificant, a mere observer.

"That's what makes this area the best kept secret in Citrus County," said ranger Shawn Gillette, relishing miles of unspoiled landscape on a recent afternoon.

Gillette arranged a tour of Chassahowitzka -- a 31,000-acre mosaic of saltwater bays, estuaries and brackish marshes -- to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the national wildlife refuge system.

There are more than 538 refuges nationwide encompassing nearly 94-million acres. Citrus County is one of few areas with two refuges, Chassahowitzka and Crystal River.

The first sanctuary was established in 1903 in Florida at Pelican Island by President Theodore Roosevelt.

"Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander," Roosevelt said at the time.

Gillette was waiting with a quiz when a group of visitors arrived early Wednesday morning at the refuge headquarters in Crystal River.

He asked if anyone recognized the names Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park and Redwood National Park. Everyone did.

But then Gillette, who came to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 after 11 years with the National Park Service, rattled off some lesser-known areas: Lake Woodruff, Union Slough and the Wichita Mountains.

They are all part of the refuge system. "A remarkable number of people do not know who we are," Gillette said, referring to the wildlife service.

The refuge system has been used for years by hunters, fishers and bird watchers, but the service, aware of the budget constraints in Washington, is trying to reach out to more people by emphasizing hiking, nature photography and other uses, Gillette said.

To extend its reach into the community, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sought partnerships with community groups, whose members serve as volunteers, advocates and fundraisers.

After his talk, Gillette led the group to a boat house, where he distributed life jackets. "We call them personal floatation devices," he said without a hint of humor.

Steam was rising in wispy columns from the water, which remains at about 72 degrees year-round, and as the boat inched ahead, a flock of scaup duck took to the air. Nearby, a bald eagle was roosting at the top of a palm tree.

"Isn't it beautiful? I love it out here," said Dick Blewett of the Friends of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Around the corner of an island thick with palm and bay trees, the desolate, dreamy tableau gave way to pontoon boats filled with scuba-clad tourists.

Kings Spring is the largest of about 30 springs in Kings Bay. Each fall and winter, manatees flock to the springs in search of warmth.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1983 specifically for the protection of the West Indian manatee. Sanctuaries are roped off in some areas to provide the mammals with a place to feed and rest without human interference.

Gillette scanned the scene but saw nothing that disturbed him, smiled and moved on. One of the great challenges, he said, is to balance the needs of the animals with a desire for human interaction.

That was apparent throughout the morning. Several times Gillette had to caution boaters to observe no wake zones. Fines are not uncommon, but the preferred approach is education, he said.

"People remember better that way."

As the boat drifted by Buzzard Island, Blewett asked about peacocks, a non-native species that was introduced to the area years ago. Gillette let the boat idle as Blewett peered through binoculars at the shore of the island.

On this day there were none to be seen. "We don't want to glorify our non-natives, so let's go check out Three Sisters Spring," Gillette said, laughing. Three Sisters is another popular manatee destination, and along the way, scores of the slow-moving mammals could be seen.

"I see them everyday, but you know what? I'm still in awe," Gillette said when asked if the experience ever became mundane.

Crystal River may be the better known of the two local refuges, but Chassahowitzka is bigger, more remote and diverse -- in short, a naturalist's dream.

Accessible only by boat, Chassahowitzka looks largely like it did in 1943, when it was established.

It was created for the protection of waterfowl, including ducks and coots. Today, the refuge is home to more than 250 bird species, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians and at least 25 species of mammals.

The refuge protects several endangered or threatened species, including manatees, sea turtles and bald eagles.

It is here that an experimental flock of whooping cranes has been established. For the past two years, researchers have used ultralight aircraft to guide the endangered cranes from Wisconsin. The goal is to establish a migrating colony of at least 125 birds by 2020.

But that is a well publicized project, and Gillette preferred to focus on other aspects of the sprawling refuge.

With refuge worker Bob Quarles at the controls of the airboat, the tour began at the county boat ramp in Chassahowitzka.

The refuge boundary does not begin until 4 miles out from boat ramp, but the trip down the Chassahowitzka River provides an equal amount of splendor.

On this afternoon, cormorants darted into the water in search of a meal, a pair of red shouldered hawks perched on a log and white pelicans soared above.

Quarles slowed the motor in respect to a couple ahead in a canoe, who were following a marked boat trail.

As the boat got farther from shore, the smell of saltwater intensified, and the terrain widened into vast islands of needlerush, which is home to a variety of creatures, from marsh rabbits to bobcats and snakes.

The airboat slowed again as a raccoons ahead swam across a narrow channel. Around the bend, a family of bald eagles perched on a dead tree, and not far from that an alligator sunned itself on the dark, muddy shore.

"It makes me feel good," Blewett said, reflecting on the experience. "It's one of the few places you can find that isn't disturbed by man."

-- To learn more about the refuge system and the centennial celebration, visit

Coming up

Two local events are planned to celebrate the century of conservation.

On March 2, a semiformal gathering will be held at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. A University of Florida woodwind quintet will perform, and wine and hors d'oeuvres will be served.

The event is $40 per person or $75 per couple. For information, call Jim Green at 382-4402 or Bonnie Smith at 382-3087.

On March 22, the annual Swamp Stomp will kick off. There is a 10.5-mile run, 15-mile paddle and an "enviro-challenge," which combines both activities. There is also a 3-mile guided nature walk.

Swamp Stomp is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The events cost between $10 and $35, depending on the activity and the time of registration. For information, call 563-5423.

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