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Boy Scouts ready to return to reservation

The Boy Scouts would operate an environmental education program on the site east of Inverness.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published April 16, 2006


INVERNESS - The Boy Scouts of America will operate a portion of the old McGregor Smith Scout Reservation east of Inverness.

Sound like an obvious choice?

It was nowhere near that easy.

The South Florida Council of Boy Scouts purchased the 4,964-acre reservation in 1969 for $1-million. In recent years, that group used the property less and less.

In December 2004, the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought it for $13.5-million.

Soon after, Swiftmud began looking for a group to operate an environmental education program from a 580-acre chunk of the site. That portion includes the only developed part of the site; it features the old ranger's residence, cabins and a 2,849-square-foot swimming pool.

Swiftmud sought proposals last summer, but no group had the financial stability to open and operate the kind of environmental program the agency hoped to see.

So Swiftmud sought proposals again, and this time it landed one from the Gulf Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Swiftmud said yes.

Unlike the previous Scout owners, this council serves young people in Citrus, Hernando, east Pasco and five other central Florida counties.

While Scouts from the local area have used the McGregor Smith facilities before, they had to pay. Now, if the details work out, the local Scouts will get regular use of the site, and it will be operated under guidance from local Scout leaders.

"This is in our back yard," said Rick Snell, who heads the Boy Scout operation in the Withlacoochee District. "This is the jewel of the area as far as natural resources and the environment."

The camp is off State Road 44 E east of Inverness. The Scouts are a natural choice for the task, according to Michael Molligan, spokesman for Swiftmud.

"They have a background in dealing with youth and education," he said. "We're happy about it because it is an organization which fits in with what we want to see done with that site."

Snell agreed that running what Swiftmud has called the Flying Eagle Environmental Education Center fits with the Scouts' mission, which emphasizes education and environmental stewardship.

While Swiftmud will retain control of the 3.7-mile frontage along the Withlacoochee River, the Scout leaders are already talking with the agency about developing a canoe launch. Scouts could take extended canoe trips in several directions, accessing thousands of acres of publicly controlled lands.

An adjacent wetland prairie is a prime bird sanctuary, and Snell said Swiftmud officials hope the Scouts can establish wildlife viewing areas there.

Swiftmud officials also have said they would like the Scouts to build trails throughout the site.

Because the site is so big, it provides a true wilderness for training, activities and programs.

"There won't be any intrusion of development ... or neighbors upset with us for beating on drums," Snell said. "We're very anxious to get out there and get these programs going."

Many details have not yet been worked out; it could be August or later before the Scouts can move in and set up shop. The Boy Scout council is expected to formally vote this week to move forward. Walk-throughs of the site with both Scout and Swiftmud representatives will follow.

Ultimately, Swiftmud's governing board will have to approve the lease, Molligan said.

While Snell said funding is a sticking point, he said the property will offer the Scouts an opportunity to share the site's unique attributes with other groups. One already has expressed keen interest: the Academy of Environmental Science.

The Crystal River charter school now focuses on the ecology of the coastal waterways. Its leaders would like to see another classroom and other learning opportunities in freshwater habitat from the Scout camp site, Snell said.

The Key Training Center has expressed interest, as has one local high school, which might hold its Project Graduation there.

"We will now have the ability to offer the full compliment of Boy Scouting programs," Snell said. "We believe if we touch one kid for a while with these programs, we have them for a lifetime."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 16, 2006, 00:42:15]


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