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    Expert: Horses, wetlands don't mix

    A county environmental expert tells Oldsmar that horse trails in a wilderness preserve are a bad idea.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 20, 2001


    OLDSMAR -- Horses and wetland areas do not mix.

    That's what a Pinellas County official told City Council members Tuesday night about including horseback riding trails in the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve.

    Horses' hooves create ruts on trails by compacting the ground, said Craig Huegel, Pinellas County environmental lands division administrator. Riding already has damaged the area, he said.

    "Horses, when they use an area, extensively erode and change the topography," Huegel said. "Florida, as fragile as it is especially when it comes to wetlands, is extremely sensitive to small changes in topography."

    Huegel said he would "recommend extremely highly" against allowing horse trails in the preserve.

    The question has come up because a riding academy has been using the wetland area at the top of Old Tampa Bay for horseback riding for about eight years.

    Some residents have lobbied the city to keep the trails, at times showing up at council meetings with horseback protesters, chanting "Save our horses, save our trails." The owner of Hire A Pony Riding Academy, which is near the preserve, said Wednesday riders will continue to pressure officials to include trails.

    "We will fight again," said academy owner Armando Gort, 44.

    Oldsmar and the county are creating the 216-acre preserve by combining land each owns.

    Under an agreement between the city and county, the city will manage the preserve's recreation areas and facilities such as restrooms, said City Manager Bruce Haddock. The county will manage environmentally sensitive areas.

    Most of the preserve consists of wetlands under county jurisdiction.

    "I would be very much against continuing horseback riding where it currently exists because it has caused very significant environmental damage," Huegel said.

    Mayor Jerry Beverland said he would fight to keep the horse trails.

    "I think horse trails should go in there," Beverland said. "They've been there, and I think they should go there. I think there is a place for them. I was reared on a horse in Idaho."

    Huegel pointed out that city officials can allow the horse trails on upland areas controlled by Oldsmar.

    But the 2- to 3-acre area near Racetrack Road is too small for horse trails, said Lynn Rives, the city's parks and recreation director.

    "You'd be going in circles," Rives said Wednesday.

    City officials plan to have a public hearing in January so Huegel can explain his recommendation.

    "I'll take all the heat in the world," Huegel said.

    People interested in riding their horses can do so at the nearby Brooker Creek Preserve, which has about 13 miles of horse trails, Huegel said.

    He pointed out that city and county officials decided to set aside the area in Oldsmar as a preserve because of its environmentally sensitive qualities. The city and county used state grants to purchase some of the land, which had been privately owned.

    Plans calls for an environmental education center, picnic shelters, hiking trails and a canoe launch.

    "If the land was purchased primarily because of its environmental sensitivity and for the public to explore wild Florida, horseback riding in this area will damage that environment and degrade the rest of the public's ability to use it for that purpose," Huegel said.

    -- Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or at quioco@sptimes.com.

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