tampabay.com

Overuse, misuse closes popular swimming area

By LOGAN NEILL
Published April 12, 2007


WEEKI WACHEE -- A popular swimming spot on the Weeki Wachee River remains off limits indefinitely after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closed it because of overuse and vandalism.

The area, located inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and known to locals as "the sandbox" and "the bluffs," has been closed for about three weeks since FWC officials determined that the abuse had outstripped the agency's ability to control it.

Though the 400-acre wildlife refuge remains open, anyone caught entering the swimming area or nearby observation tower faces a possible $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

According to FWC spokesman Gary Morse, the public area was put off limits because of damage to an erosion control buffer designed to protect the shoreline. However, Morse acknowledged that the area's long history of vandalism and criminal activity was also a factor.

"We're in the process of evaluating what we need to do," Morse said. "We want to provide a safe place for the public while also protecting the fragile environment. Clearly, what we've been doing up to this point hasn't worked very well."

The area, which is accessible by boat and by land, has been a popular gathering spot for decades. Located about a mile and a half west of Weeki Wachee Springs, it is one of only two river locations in Hernando County that provide public access for swimming. On a typical summer day, as many as 300 visitors would gather to enjoy the pristine spring-fed waters.

Morse said that although his agency is responsible for patrolling the area, lack of adequate manpower has often left the site vulnerable to vandalism, littering and other criminal activity.

A recent visit to the wildlife refuge revealed the extent of the problem. A grassy terrace where swimmers gather is littered with trash, cigarette butts and discarded clothing. There are numerous signs of recent campfires, which are not allowed in the park. A 20 foot-high tower built for manatee observation is defaced by graffiti, its railing broken by vandals.

For wildlife officer Joe Wolff, patrolling the area can be a daunting task. Wolff, whose canine unit covers five counties, said that few visitors pay the $3 visitors fee, which is collected on an honor system near the park entrance. Alcohol possession, which is illegal in state wildlife areas, theft and illegal entry are also frequent complaints. However, he has frequently seen much worse.

"I came out here a few weeks ago and found two guys smoking methamphetamine in the parking lot," said Wolff. "It was 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning."

Wolff, who patrols four counties in addition to Hernando, said while he would welcome more enforcement help, he would rather that park users respect the rules and realize that continued problems could mean permanent closure of the bluff.

"You can have a dozen officers out here and it won't matter if the prevailing attitude is to tear the place up," Wolff said. "It's got to start with the people who use the area."

Chuck Morton, president of the Hernando Environmental Land Protectors, a grass-roots organization dedicated to environmental preservation west of Weeki Wachee, believes the wildlife commission should permanently ban river access inside the management area.

"The problem is that they made it accessible to the public without ever considering how they were going to manage it," said Morton. "People don't belong in a wildlife area."

Morton said HELP organizes three to four river cleanup days each year. The activity at the bluff, he said, "puts a black eye on an otherwise beautiful area."

Lou Olivas, owner of Weeki Wachee Canoe and Kayak rental said that he now warns his customers to heed warning signs telling them to keep off the bluff. He suggests anyone wanting to swim to head further down river to Rogers Park.

Though he is sorry to see the closing, Olivas agrees that something had to be done. "It was getting a little crazy," he said.

Although the FWC is evaluating the closing of the area, Morse said residents shouldn't expect an answer soon.

Said Morse, "Right now, our options are a bit limited."

Logan Neill can be reached at 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.