Monday, June 18, 2018
Business

USDA should act soon on abandoned research property near Chinsegut

The scientists pulled out a little more than a year ago.

They abandoned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's offices and barns on the flanks of Chinsegut Hill, north of Brooksville.

They took their equipment, their desks and, eventually, their cattle.

They left 3,800 acres of pasture and woods that, before the funding dried up, had served as a federal subtropical research center for many decades.

So what will happen now? How will this land be used?

Nobody knows, which is a shame because every jewel deserves a good setting.

The USDA land is a major part of a band of green that runs to the south of the historic, potentially stunning Chinsegut manor house — about to get a major polishing job thanks to a $1.5 million state grant — and to the north and east toward the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

It's studded with a few gems of its own, by the way: stone offices and utility buildings constructed by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

Its potential is not lost on the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which in April sent a letter to the USDA asking to take it over.

So far, Fish and Wildlife hasn't said exactly how the property might be used. But here are some possibilities if it's managed as natural land: restore the historic longleaf pine habitat; set it aside as a destination for relocated gopher tortoises; cut hiking trails that use the pastures as bridges to other chunks of preserved land.

We've got to have that. If Chinsegut Hill is going to become a significant tourist draw — and it better with a grant of that size — it needs trails. We need to let people explore the scenic valleys they can see from the top of the hill.

That's true even if the USDA chooses to turn over the land to Florida A&M University, which is preparing a request to continue to use the land for agricultural research. That's fine, as long as the university allows visitors to skirt its fields on hikes, and maybe allows them to tour the research operation.

Even the county, which has signed a lease agreement that gives it control of the manor house and the surrounding 114 acres, has laid a claim to the property, at least in a general way.

It sent a letter to the USDA last month "basically saying that we're a stakeholder and we have an interest," said Mike McHugh, the county's business development manager.

This might seem like a long time to merely place dibs on the property, but the university, county and state are moving at lighting speed compared to the USDA.

I'm basing this judgment partly on an internal memo to other Fish and Wildlife employees that Tom Houston, the agency's land conservation coordinator, wrote in April.

Houston notified them that, based on his talks with the USDA, the paperwork for the eventual property transfer had been sent from another USDA office to Atlanta, and that it could take up to three months before someone there is given responsibility for it. And that person, Houston wrote, "will start the process all over again."

USDA spokeswoman Sandy Miller Hays didn't know exactly what this process entails, but she did tell me that "disposing of federal property, believe me, it doesn't happen quickly."

It shouldn't. Deciding who gets property this valuable requires thought and caution.

But I'm reminded that it took the Army Corps of Engineers roughly two decades to clear a few shells left over from the time when part of our county was a military gun range. It's a completely different agency, of course, but I worry that the USDA might share the corps' same bureaucratic DNA, its same lack of urgency.

And as the manor house is whipped into good enough shape to draw visitors, it would be a shame if they are greeted with views of weedy pastures, crumbling historic buildings and locked gates.

So, though it's probably futile, I think we all need to urge the federal government to please hurry up.

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