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State's purchase of Citrus land will preserve sand hills

The state will spend $4.5-million to prevent development of the 1,900-acre hammock in Lecanto.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


LECANTO -- In a move environmentalists say will benefit creatures from snakes to humans, the state Cabinet last week approved the purchase of nearly 1,900 acres adjacent to the Withlacoochee State Forest.

The land, which will cost $4.5-million when the deal is closed later this month, has been described as an ecological jewel for its rolling sand hills, long-leaf pines and diverse animal population.

"It's a real unique environment," said Helen Spivey, one of the original advocates of the acquisition. "That will be a piece of land that children of Citrus County and all over the region will come to look at in awe."

In addition to long-leaf pines, the Lecanto property is dotted with turkey oaks and wiregrass and is home to gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes and southeastern kestrels.

Money for the land, owned by Robert L. Zinn and Gerald Rauch, comes from the state's Conservation and Recreation Lands program. The deal was negotiated by the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

The property is especially important to keep open because of its sand hills, officials said. Very little sand-hill terrain remains in Florida because the high and dry nature of the land has made it popular with builders.

Richard Hilsenbeck, associate director of the conservancy, which conducts worldwide inventories of land, classifies sand-hill communities as "globally impaired."

In Florida, this land is critical because water passes quickly through the loose, sandy soil and into the aquifer, he said. The water feeds natural springs along the coast.

Given the severe drought, "when you have an area that is significant for its recharge ability, it doesn't get much better than this," said Betsy Donley, also an associate director at the conservancy.

The land is viewed as a natural extension of the Annutteliga Hammock, a 30,000-acre swath along the Citrus-Hernando county line that could prove to be an island among the growing development pressures in central Florida.

Land here, long popular among retirees because it is reasonably priced, should become even more attractive now that the Suncoast Parkway is open.

"That (the toll road) will bring the world up to Hernando and Citrus County," Donley said.

About 10,000 acres have been secured for the hammock. Among other things, the preserve provides bears a connection between the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Other recent acquisitions that make up the hammock include 5,242 acres from the developers of Sugarmill Woods, 1,580 acres from Seville and a 928-acre tract that was an undeveloped part of the World Woods golf development.

The Lecanto Sandhills essentially will become part of the Withlacoochee State Forest. At least part of the property will be open to the public, said Steve Bohl, land acquisition manager for the state Division of Forestry.

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