tampabay.com

Brooker Creek debate: Old dairy land or useful habitat?

Pinellas officials must decide the value of the preserve's north tract.

By THERESA BLACKWELL
Published May 20, 2007


Decades ago, the cows of the old Salls dairy roamed north of Old Keystone Road.

Today the land is part of Pinellas County's Brooker Creek Preserve. The cows are gone, replaced in the 1980s when the county planted tens of thousands of pine trees.

But the bovine heritage of the preserve - especially north of Keystone Road - lately has been a source of contention.

In the debate about whether to create youth sports fields in the preserve, there are two points of view.

On one side, there are some Pinellas County officials and youth sports advocates who say the northern part of the preserve is not as ecologically pristine as the wetlands south of Keystone Road, so maybe the ballfields wouldn't be so bad.

"It's an old dairy farm, " Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said last week.

On the other side are those who say the dairy covered only part of the northern preserve land, which covers 1, 413 acres and includes other natural habitats. Even the planted pines are undergoing a restoration, providing a variety of habitats for native wildlife.

"Anything that is undeveloped is useful habitat, " said Walt Hoskins, chairman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve. "If you leave it alone, nature will use it."

These two perspectives have played key roles in the continuing public debate over the preserve's future, and the Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to begin the next part of that discussion from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday.

But before everyone headed back to the County Courthouse, the Times wanted to see what habitats there are on the northern part of the preserve.

So we invited ourselves out for a hike.

A closer look

Our guide was Lisa Baltus, a Hudson resident who is the preserve's land manager.

Already, it was hot and muggy Thursday morning as Baltus pulled out a map and outlined a route through planted pines, cypress dome wetlands, expansive marsh, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks and prized sandhill terrain.

Florida has only about 2 percent of the undeveloped sandhill it once had. The pockets in the Brooker Creek Preserve are all that remain in Pinellas County.

When you go north of Keystone Road, you find the county's planted pine trees on the western side of the preserve land. To the east is generally undisturbed land.

And the pines are just one of the habitats woven into the tapestry of the northern part of the preserve, according to county staff.

"They are subtle changes from one perspective, " Baltus said. "But they are big changes from an ecological perspective."

From the start of the hike, it wasn't hard to spot the wildlife.

Just yards from the parking lot off Old Keystone Road, a turkey and her chicks ducked into the woods. And in the distance, two deer stepped out of the woods, looked our way and hurried for cover.

"There are a ton of deer up in this north part, " Baltus said.

At a cypress dome wetland, light glistened on backlit ferns. The ground was soft underfoot from the digging of armadillos and squirrels.

That area led to an expansive marsh filled with mock bishop's weed, redroot, rushes, sedges, wax myrtle, Virginia willow, and in the distance, pines, oaks and cypress.

"It's functioning as a good, open, grassy marsh, " Baltus said.

The hike went through natural pine flatwoods and over the crunchy, dry leaves of oak hammocks to a pocket of sandhill. A gopher tortoise burrow was surrounded by gopher apple vines.

"This is like heaven for a gopher tortoise, " Baltus said. "Lots to eat."

Two zebra butterflies ranged over grass and sand, under turkey oak and longleaf pine.

"It's a small pocket, but it's nice, " Baltus said. "It's not all old cow pasture and planted pine."

Mapping parcels

As part of the larger debate about public policy for the preserve, Pinellas County's environmental management staff is being asked to identify the area's key habitats.

The county's Utilities Department bought much of the preserve and has helped draft a proposed map of what parts of the preserve the department no longer needs and what parts might remain available for its uses.

In response, the county Environmental Lands Division will soon evaluate the preserve land north of Keystone Road from an ecological standpoint.

"Our next step is to go in there and prioritize - one, two, three, four - those parcels that we see with the most significant ecological value, " said Bruce Rinker, Pinellas County's Environmental Lands Division director.

And then the map will be adjusted.

Preserved for riding

Except for occasional special events, public access to the preserve north of Keystone Road has been limited to riders on horseback using the preserve's horse trails.

A new equestrian group, the Equestrian Partners with Brooker Creek Preserve, prefers to keep the preserve as it is - for passive recreation.

"I would love to see all things for everyone, but that's just not how it would come out, " said Lore Pearson of East Lake, the group's coordinator. "We have to say 'Keep it passive' or it's going to disappear."

She and the other riders would hate to see that happen.

"The sound, the taste, the smell of that area, there's nothing average about it, " Pearson said. "It reeks of Florida nature, and we love it."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or 727 445-4170.