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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Some free advice
There are plenty of places to get into nature, and a new guide gives the scoop on where to get started.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published January 21, 2005
WIMAUMA - To the casual observer, the old farm road looked as if it hadn't been used in years. But on closer examination, a trained eye could tell that the road was a wildlife highway.
"This looks like a pretty active game trail," Rob Heath said, pointing to a patch of sand in the wire grass. "I see some hog tracks, raccoon and a dog, maybe a coyote."
This 4,240-acre wilderness site, located a half-hour's drive from downtown Tampa, straddles the Little Manatee River, one of Florida's last great unspoiled waterways.
"This tract of land has great potential," said Heath, who has spent 20 years as a wildlife biologist and land manager for Hillsborough County. "Not many people come out here, but as you can see, the animals love it."
The parcel of land, the Upper Little Manatee River Corridor Preserve, is one of 52 seldom-visited wildlife areas featured in a new free publication, A Guide to Natural Areas in the Tampa Bay Region.
Heath, who acquired a love for the outdoors as a boy in Louisiana, began cataloging these underutilized public lands when he worked for the Hillsborough County Department of Parks and Recreation.
"All of the sites have two things in common," he said. "They are all environmentally significant and nobody knows about them."
The 128-page, spiral-bound guide was published in June and since has become a hit with nature lovers looking to get away from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area's urban sprawl.
"It has been popular with Sierra Club and Audubon members," Heath said. "I think the thing that people like most about it is the fact that it is free."
The guide profiles one Polk, one Manatee and three Pinellas county sites as well as 47 in Hillsborough, where Heath did most of his field work. The Corridor Preserve is one of four areas within the Little Manatee River complex.
"This is one of the cleanest, most pristine rivers in Florida," Heath said as he gazed at the water, the prize after a 1-mile hike through soft sand. "There has been no dams or dredging. The river is still pretty much the way it has always been."
The public owns and controls about 8,000 acres along the river. The waterway and adjacent land are home to a variety of rare and endangered species, including the West Indian manatee, southern bald eagle and eastern indigo snake.
"On a bright sunny day like this you might see a gopher tortoise walking around," Heath said, pointing to one of the reptile's burrows. But Heath, a veteran scrub traveler, knew not to get too close to the hole in the sand. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes find gopher tortoise burrows convenient shelters.
Like many of the parcels detailed in this guide, the Upper Little Manatee River Corridor Preserve was purchased bit by bit over the years by Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"We bought the land to preserve it," Heath said. "Right now it is only open during daylight hours. It is patrolled periodically. But in the future, we hope to develop some campsites along the river."
Hiking back from the river, Heath stopped again to examine a pile of feathers scattered across the old farm road.
"These are from a great horned owl," he said. "It must have landed here to eat something it had killed and something snuck up on it from behind."
The bird, one of nature's apex predators, has a reputation as a fearsome hunter.
"But something obviously got it," Heath said. "Probably a cat ... a big cat."
With that, Heath headed back to his van to continue his journey ... just another day in the life of wildlife lover at play in one of Tampa Bay's wilderness getaways.