tampabay.com

Nature secondary in mismanaged park

By JOHN STROHMEYER
Published January 29, 2007


The biggest scandal in Citrus County is the way the county operates Fort Island Trail Park. No, there is no money under the table. The scandal is that there is no money collected.

Freeloading boat owners, including great numbers from outside of Citrus, take advantage of our great resource. Not only don't they pay a dime to launch their boats into the Crystal River, but they are trampling those once lovely park grounds and turning them into a noisy, pollution-prone parking lot complex.

First, the county paved over every piece of open space leading to the boat launch with asphalt to accommodate cars, trucks and boat trailers. However, that soon didn't provide enough parking for the boat-towing vehicles that line up to hit the river.

So the county cleared out the shrubbery and moved out the picnic tables in the tree-shaded area across the slough to enable the overflow of visitors to jam their cars and trailers onto the grounds where families used to come for an outdoor cookout.

Soon, some complained it was too long a walk from the picnic parking and around the slough to reach the boat ramp. So the county built an expensive bridge across the slough so those intruders of our privacy wouldn't be too inconvenienced.

On Jan. 7, I counted 126 cars and trucks with boat trailers crowded into the so-called Fort Island Trail "park." I noted that even with all those extra spaces, there was still not enough parking. So some late-comers simply parked vehicles and boat trailers on the sides of the narrow road leading to the fishing pier area.

And what do they pay to park all day after launching their boats for free? Not a dime.

As a nearby resident, I simmered for years over the deterioration of this county giveaway with each new intrusion of its natural character. Then a few days ago, I lost my cool. I saw a bulldozer-sized brush cutter mowing the saw grass in the wetlands area at the end of the parking strip in a bog so deep that even no desperate boater would dare to park.

"Why are you destroying those wetlands?" I asked the heavy-equipment operator wielding the swinging arm of a cutter that was also cutting small trees along with the saw grass. "I'm doing what I was told to do," he replied.

He gave me a name to call, but I honestly thought it was against the law to destroy wetlands. So I called the Sheriff's Office instead.

"I want to report someone destroying wetlands," I said. A deputy came to the phone.

After I detailed my complaint, he told me this was a county matter and said he wasn't interested and was about to hang up.

"Wait," I told him. "I'm a writer taking notes. I am now interested in why the Sheriff's Office is not interested in hearing that someone is breaking the law by destroying wetlands."

His attitude changed suddenly. "I'll have someone from the county call you."

Indeed, at least two people called. Each had the same explanation. The bog they were clearing was a holding pond to catch runoff water and filter it into nature's system. They were bound by law to make sure it had the assigned capacity.

"Why do you have to mow the saw grass?" I asked. "Isn't it, in effect, nature's best filtering system and mowing it with all that heavy equipment is just a waste of public money?

"You'll have to call Swiftmud about that," he replied.

He didn't have a phone number for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, except that they were headquartered in Brooksville.

I did not want to spend the toll money to pursue. But I learned what I needed to know. The Citrus County I live in has a shoddy park administration. With all this talk about impact fees, isn't it about time for boaters to pay something for their considerable impact on our public park and waters?

If the county can afford heavy- equipment operators to mow saw grass, they ought to be able to afford someone to collect launch and parking tolls. Or even install an honor box where boaters can at least drop a $10 bill into a machine that punches out a coupon certifying they paid.

Even a small launch and parking fee could serve the county's interests in another way. It would almost certainly reduce the number of boaters entering Crystal River, which is overcrowded with speeding boats that maim manatees and is fast becoming an impaired waterway.

And about that holding pond. In my traffic count on Jan. 7, I noted at least one desperate boat launcher parked his trailer halfway down the bank of the newly mowed bog. A few days later, a second car backed its boat trailer halfway down. How's that for helping nature's filtering system.

John Strohmeyer is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is a winter resident of Crystal River.