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'Bluffs' likely to stay off-limits

By LOGAN NEILL
Published June 12, 2007


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WEEKI WACHEE - A popular party spot on the Weeki Wachee River that has been closed to boaters because of vandalism and rowdiness will likely remain off-limits to the public for the foreseeable future.

Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met recently with Weeki Wachee residents concerning the area known as "the bluffs" inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge. The area was shut down in April because of overuse and erosion.

Since closing riverfront access at the park, things have gotten a lot better, said Lt. Kevin Grover, the commission's patrol supervisor for Pasco and Hernando counties.

Speaking at a meeting of the Hernando County Land Protectors, Grover said closing the river access has yielded positive results in a short amount of time.

"It's like night and day, " Grover said. "We're seeing far fewer incidents, less vandalism and we're making fewer arrests."

The 400-acre wildlife refuge, 2 miles west of U.S. 19 on Cortez Boulevard, has long been a favorite spot for hikers and wildlife enthusiasts. Though birding trails remain open, signs near the swimming area and a nearby observation tower warn visitors of a possible $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail if they are caught inside the restricted areas.

The closure of the bluffs came after wildlife officials found that overuse had caused damage to erosion buffers. In addition, escalating incidents of littering, vandalism and other criminal activity were becoming more problematic for the agency's small force of officers.

Several residents who live near the refuge complained that in recent years large crowds gathering at the refuge on weekends and holidays had become increasingly rowdy. Some said they have heard gunshots.

According to Grover, the wildlife commission plans to hold a public hearing later this year before it determines whether it will reopen the restricted area.

"I doubt it's possible to make everybody happy, " said Grover. "The problem is that you have a popular place that people love to use. Most of them are good people, but some of them could care less. The question is: How do you make it a clean, safe place for everyone?"

Commission law enforcement supervisor Randy Mullins said that short-term measures meant to limit visitor access have had a positive impact. In addition to shrinking the parking area, visitors now must pay their $3 mandatory park use fee at the entrance on Cortez Boulevard before they enter the parking lot.

Mullins said that stepped-up patrols are sending a loud-and- clear warning to would-be troublemakers.

"It sends the message that we're watching them, " he said. "Hopefully, they'll move on to someplace else."

Hernando County Land Protectors president Chuck Morton said he hopes the wildlife agency's decision to close the bluffs becomes permanent.

"I've never understood why they ever wanted all those people coming in and out, " Morton said. "The only way you can have a special place for wildlife is to exclude humans from it."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill @sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.

[Last modified June 11, 2007, 23:15:30]


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