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Buying Cross Bar Ranch from Pinellas worth it for Pasco

Two whooping cranes roam the 12,500-acre Cross Bar Ranch in 
central Pasco recently. Pinellas County owns the ranch.

Photo courtesy of Albert Roller

Two whooping cranes roam the 12,500-acre Cross Bar Ranch in central Pasco recently. Pinellas County owns the ranch.

One picture shows two whooping cranes flying alongside their lanky cousins, the sandhill cranes.

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The other picture show the elegant white birds wading in ankle-deep water at Cross Bar Ranch the last month. A couple of the elegant birds were also spotted on the massive ranch property three years ago.

"It shows that it's a good habitat for them to come back to," said Rene Wiesner Brown, head of Pasco County environmental lands program. Her agency wants to buy the 12,500-acre ranch from Pinellas County.

Timing is everything.

Wiesner Brown will show off the pictures of the whooping cranes today in Tallahassee when she joins other county officials as they make the case to Gov. Charlie Crist and his Cabinet that Cross Bar is worth preserving.

Pasco county officials have made this trip several times before. They don't expect to return home disappointed. A week ago, Crist voiced support for acquiring Cross Bar Ranch using Florida Forever funds.

The governor is from the Tampa Bay region, but he has never visited Cross Bar. He should.

It's an impressive spread. Located in the heart of central Pasco, east of U.S. 41 and north of State Road 52, Cross Bar was bought by Pinellas County decades ago when Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were competing for dwindling water supplies.

Now, in addition to its well fields, the property is home to an educational center, which is visited by hundreds of Pasco students each year, an active cattle ranch and a moneymaking pine-straw collection operation.

But the majesty of this property is in the vast stretches of marshland, scrub jay habitat, the wandering herds of deer and flocks of wild turkey and sandhill cranes.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to conserve for the future by investing in it.

But it's also a hefty investment. Cross Bar Ranch is assessed at $176-million, according to Pasco County records. However, the state paid $8,000 per acre for similar land last year. That would mean a price tag of closer to $100-million.

Of course, critics of government land acquisition will ask why bother buying it when it's protected as long as Pinellas County owns it. Truth is, Cross Bar is property Pinellas no longer needs. But the county does need $80-million for a new utility plant. And over the years, developers and private investors have been sniffing around. It's hard to keep saying no to those tempting offers.

Pasco needs the skill to craft a deal that includes Florida Forever and Penny for Pasco dollars, combined with money from other partners — the Southwest Florida Water Management District, state Forestry Division and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which could use some of the property for gopher tortoise relocation.

Such a deal could make Cross Bar the crown jewel of land preservation — protecting habitat, safeguarding the drinking water supply, providing areas for passive recreation and a safe place for whooping cranes to frolic. That's an investment worth making.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at askerritt@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

Buying Cross Bar Ranch from Pinellas worth it for Pasco 02/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 5:18pm]

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