HAINES CITY — After hearing months of debate, regional water managers agreed Tuesday to open more public preserve lands in Hillsborough and Pasco counties to hunters.
But they heeded safety concerns and overruled their staff's recommendation to also allow more hunting in the Cypress Creek Preserve in Central Pasco.
That proposal — to permit six weekends of archery hunting per year on a portion of the preserve — caused the most consternation in Pasco. The area is near homes, schools and water facilities.
"Hallelujah," Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri declared after the vote of denial.
She said she had heard the worries of dozens of people who use trails in the preserve, where bicycling, hiking, horseback riding and camping are allowed.
Several agencies, including the Pasco County Commission, the city of Tampa and Tampa Bay Water — which operates a wellfield there — also opposed it.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, called Swiftmud for short, did agree to allow some hunting in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve near New Tampa and in the Green Swamp West Non-Wildlife Management Area in eastern Pasco, it said in a statement.
The directors agreed:
• That the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve in northeastern Hillsborough County offer 18 days of gun hunting for youths and families. That includes 12 days of hunting for families and six days of spring turkey hunting for youngsters and families. Hunting could begin at the 16,000-acre preserve next December.
• That parts of the Green Swamp West preserve in eastern Pasco that are not already deemed wildlife management areas will allow hunting for youths and disabled people.
The district has not yet developed specifics, but should in time for the 2013 hunting season.
Swiftmud already allows hunting at more than a dozen places in its 16-county area, but other water management districts in the state offer more.
For months, hunters have argued that it is unfair to keep them out of more district lands.
"The equestrians have unregulated, unmanaged access to 31 properties within the district," said David Dulcher, the sole proponent of the hunting plan to speak at Tuesday's meeting in Haines City. "It's the same frustrations held by most sportsmen in Florida that hunt on public land — that we are excluded from public land."
But passive users — hikers, bikers and horseback riders — argued that hunting would shut them out during the hunting season because of safety fears.
The board upheld staff recommendations against expanding hunting in the Green Swamp East, which straddles Polk, Sumter and Lake counties.
The district holds a public meeting Jan. 5 at the Lecanto Government Building in Citrus County to talk about opening additional lands for hunting. The lands to be considered are Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps in Citrus County; lands on the Lake Panasoffkee property that are not already wildlife management areas in Sumter County; Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County; and Weeki Wachee Preserve in Hernando County.
Times staff writer Lee Logan and the Ledger of Lakeland contributed to this report.