Monday, May 21, 2018
Business

Hikers see a swath of promise north of Big Pine Tract

Now that the suffocating pillow of summer has been lifted from Florida's face, it's time to hike.

Put on your boots if you like. But for our sandy trails and pastures, old running shoes work fine.

Pack water and a raincoat, though this time of year, with reliably blue skies, you probably won't need it.

Snacks are a good idea, too, at least according to my regular hiking partner, Mitch Almon, who always brings several Ziploc bags crammed with cookies and trail mix.

And that's all there is to it.

Even choosing a favorite route isn't hard. Not even with all the options we have around here.

At least not for me.

Two weeks ago, on one of the first clear, relatively cool days of fall, Almon and I met at the Big Pine Tract, north of Brooksville.

We set out on a grassy path, under the area's namesake old-growth pines that meet at such awesome heights over the trail that you might think you were in St. Louis under the arch.

The tract was deserted on this morning, as it usually is, which I blame partly on people's general lack of initiative to get out and partly on the fact that, for hikers, Big Pine is a bit of a cul-de-sac. Yes, the trail that loops around the edge of the 400-acre property does extend north in one spot, just west of the shoulder of U.S. 41, making for a nice mile-long trudge along the asphalt.

What's really needed on the north end of the property, where it connects with the oak hammock surrounding the intermittent lake called Burns Prairie, is a stile, one of the ladder-like devices common in Europe that allow people, but not livestock, to pass over fences.

To the north of Big Pine is the federal land that was used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cattle research center for decades before the underfunded department abandoned it a year ago.

Michael Ostow, who helped found a company called Chinsegut Management Group, has an idea for this land that I like — lease it to ranchers, at least while the government is deciding its ultimate fate.

Because of its potential as conservation area, he said, the ranchers would keep the environmental impact to a minimum. Because of its recreational value, Ostow (who said he has an agreement with the company providing security for the property) thinks it should be kept open to hikers.

Which is why he had no problem granting Almon and me permission to proceed, north past the prairie and into the pasture, which could definitely use bushhogging by a rancher and some grazing by livestock. The dog fennel and Spanish needle have grown so high and thick that it blocked the open views that make this, on the few occasions I've been allowed to walk it, my hands-down favorite hike in Hernando.

But whether Ostow will get his way is, at best, unclear. The USDA had until the Oct. 1 to "dispose" of the property, meaning to get it into the hands of an appropriate user, said spokeswoman Sandy Miller Hays. At that time, control over it was transferred to the federal General Services Administration, and USDA staffers, working at a pace that makes you wonder how much the government shutdown really slowed them down, won't get the paperwork to the GSA until the end of the year.

Until then, the property is "basically in limbo," said Hays, who added that she had no record of an agreement with Ostow or with any company to run cattle on the land.

So, not knowing what will happen to it, the hike with Almon only revealed what should happen.

We continued north along the flanks of Chinsegut Hill, past the stone, Depression-era outbuildings and offices built by the old Civilian Conservation Corps. The trail dipped into the oak woods, stands of giant elephant ears in the understory, and descended gently to another Conservation Corps building, a deserted lodge on the banks of Lake Lindsey.

Then it was back up to the Chinsegut manor house, the recipient of a $1.4 million state grant that will allow it to be developed as a tourist draw. From there, we could look back down at the open USDA land, a great view of what would be a great complement to the house at Chinsegut.

The entire walk was a little over 3 miles and, really, not hard at all.

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