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    Expense imperils wildlife corridor

    Joining Brooker Creek Preserve to Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco would require the purchase of thousands of pricey acres.

    By JAMES THORNER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


    A proposed unbroken wildlife corridor that would link the Brooker Creek Preserve to Pasco County's Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park is in jeopardy.

    Even as a consultant hired by Pasco County proceeds with a $177,000 contract to help map the corridor, one of the biggest landowners on the route said he doubts taxpayers can afford the project.

    Jay B. "Trey" Starkey III said his family has already sold 12,000 acres of the family's ranch for conservation land.

    The state is considering the purchase of 1,000 more acres of Starkey land for the corridor. Starkey said the acquisition would be prohibitively expensive, perhaps tens of millions of dollars.

    "We're out of the charity wildlife business. We feel like we've done that already," Starkey said Tuesday, a week after Pinellas officials pitched the corridor plan to his family.

    That's bad news for officials in Pasco and Pinellas, who need the Starkeys to create an unbroken greenbelt running in an arc from Brooker Creek to Cypress Creek in central Pasco.

    In a settlement with environmentalists, Pasco promised to pursue such a corridor, which Pinellas needs to keep the 8,000-acre Brooker Creek park from being hemmed in by development.

    "If you could connect Brooker Creek by corridor to the Starkey park, then you're looking at a 35,000-acre piece instead of an 8,000-acre piece," said David Sumpter, Pinellas' manager of conservation lands.

    Speaking to a community group in Ozona on Tuesday night, Pinellas County's environmental lands division manager Craig Huegel touched on his long-term dream of seeing the Brooker Creek Preserve linked with land in Hillsborough and Pasco counties to create a massive preserve.

    "If we can do that, we've done a really cool thing," Huegel said.

    To connect the parks, the public has to buy a 4-mile swath of land from three owners: about 1,000 acres of the Starkey ranch north of SR 54, several hundred acres from the developer of the Trinity community south of SR 54 and about 2,000 acres from the Crocker family ranch in the northwest corner of Hillsborough County.

    Support is growing for the state Department of Transportation to acquire some of the corridor to compensate for environmental damage from its road projects.

    The Starkeys are known for their generosity in endowing parks. In the 1970s, the family sold land cheaply to build the wilderness park. The last large piece of Starkey land acquired by the public, 3,600 acres, sold for about $2,300 an acre in 1996.

    But that sale happened when the family was strapped for money to pay inheritance taxes. The Starkeys aren't feeling so charitable this time around.

    Most of their remaining holdings snuggle the fast-developing SR 54 corridor. Starkey estimates the land's development value at about $10,000-$25,000 an acre. The Trinity property across the highway, approved for a giant housing development, could fetch at least twice that much.

    Crocker ranch owners couldn't be reached for comment, although Hillsborough County is targeting 1,300 acres as part of its Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program.

    Starkey said corridor acquisition could top $55-million. He called it a waste of taxpayer dollars. Why not spend the money on a desalination plant? Biologists disagree whether bobcats, foxes and deer will actually use the pathways laid out for them, he said.

    "Why the hell do I want to spend a bunch of time on a project that ain't going to happen?" Starkey said.

    Pasco County attorney Robert Sumner said Starkey's wildlife corridor obituary is premature. "The corridor may not happen, but isn't it worth a try?" he said.

    Pinellas officials worry the window of opportunity for creating the corridor is slipping away. As a biologist, Sumpter is certain animals will use a wildlife corridor, provided the land is wide enough.

    Sumpter, the land conservation manager, argues that price is less important than the chance to leave an environmental legacy to our children.

    "It's a one-time shot," he said. "There will never be a chance again."

    - Staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report.

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