CHASSAHOWITZKA — Over the next 15 years, the expansive Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge needs to replace its headquarters, add staff, inventory and monitor animal populations, study migratory birds and acquire more land in order to meet its goals, officials say.
The price tag for all that runs in the tens of millions of dollars.
The proposals are detailed in the draft of the refuge's first comprehensive conservation plan, which was recently released for public comment.
"It's a big wish list," said Michael Lusk, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The plan is based on what Lusk and others identified as their dreams for what the refuge needs. So, of course, they dreamed big, he acknowledged.
The draft recommends that all of the historical uses in the refuge continue. But officials suggest starting to enforce a regulation that requires commercial guides, commercial photographers and commercial fishermen to obtain permits to conduct their business.
The plan also pushes for more research and monitoring of several aspects of the refuge in the coming years.
"What we're doing is trying to maintain a fairly healthy system," said Mary Morris, natural resource planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "A lot of what you see (in the plan) are baseline studies."
While over the years the refuge has collected some data, especially related to imperiled species, a comprehensive assessment is necessary to assess any future changes to the refuge as a whole, Morris said.
The 322-page plan includes monitoring, taking inventory, managing and studying a wide range of data, including for birds, blue crabs, invasive plants and animals, native animals, hydrological structures and even climate change.
Also among the 14 projects recommended is acquisition from willing sellers of pockets of land that are surrounded by refuge property, at an estimated cost of $15 million.
Proposed improvements to Dog Island would include a wildlife observation platform and a kayak launch. Wilderness boundaries would be posted in the refuge, and a visitor survey would be conducted.
In addition, the plan recommends replacing the current refuge complex office in Crystal River with a new structure at the cost of $2.5 million. Annual maintenance costs would be $50,000.
Morris said the idea would be to elevate the new structure, since the old one was flooded in the no-name storm of 1993, and use it strictly for office space. Currently, the headquarters on Kings Bay Drive is also a visitor center.
Eventually, a new visitor center could be located at the nearby Three Sisters Springs property, which the agency also manages, Morris said.
Currently, the refuge complex is staffed by 10 people, and the plan recommends giving six of them more responsibilities. The plan proposes adding 16 positions, eight of which would be for the Chassahowitzka refuge. The complex includes several refuges in the Tampa Bay area, including Egmont Key and the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
While the wish list is pricey and federal funding for refuges is uncertain, there is no obligation for Congress to fund every project on the list. In fact, the plan outlines how the refuge can maintain its core functions without any increase in funding. It also encourages partnering with other organizations and using more volunteers.
The comment period for the draft ends Tuesday, with final acceptance of the plan slated by September.
"We're going to support the refuge in their comprehensive plan," said Lace Blue-McLean, vice president of Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The group is working on its formal comments and plans to submit them before the deadline.
Established in 1943, the refuge stretches up the Nature Coast from Raccoon Point in Hernando County, taking in a part of the Chassahowitzka River and reaching as far as the Homosassa River in Citrus County. The refuge includes 30,842 acres of saltwater bays, estuaries and brackish marshes with hardwood swamps along the eastern boundary.
The refuge, accessible by boat, was formed to benefit the ducks, coots and other waterfowl once abundant in the area.
In recent years, the refuge has become known for playing host to North America's tallest bird, the whooping crane. Since 2001, young cranes have been led from Wisconsin to the refuge behind ultralight aircraft as part of a larger program to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes to the Eastern United States.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.