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Local sections of Florida Trail need to be protected

Among the 47 miles of trails in the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest is "the state's longest backpacking loop in a single contiguous forest … with aggressively rolling sandhills, steep descents into sinkholes, and rock-strewn footpaths."

That's according to the Florida Trail Association's website, which also says that there are 30 more miles of trail in the popular Croom Tract, east of Brooksville.

Then there's the Richloam Tract, east of U.S. 301, which is part of one of the largest wild areas in Central Florida. It is 58,000 acres of dense forest and swamp. It is immediately north of another 110,000 acres of preserved land in and around the Green Swamp.

An ambitious hiker could start in Richloam at State Road 50, traverse parts of Hernando, Pasco and Sumter and not emerge from the woods until reaching northern Polk County.

Most trails in all of these natural areas are marked by the trademark orange blazes of the Florida Trail.

The Florida Trail Association has been working for decades to string a trail the length of the state, from the Big Cypress National Preserve to the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. And given the fragmented nature of wild land in our state, you'd think the long stretches in our region would be valuable additions to that goal.

For a while, at least, the U.S. Forest Service had other ideas. The service, which supervises the Florida Trail as part of the National Scenic Trail system, talked seriously last year about eliminating the western corridor of the trail, which splits from the eastern path near State Road 60 and rejoins it in the Ocala National Forest.

Before getting into the reasons for this plan, I should point out that the service appears to have backed away from it, at least for now.

Denise Rains, a spokeswoman with the Forest Service, said it has no plans to decertify any sections of the trail "at this time."

But it's still pursuing the same general aim of consolidating the trail system.

"The Florida Trail corridor has become all these different trails that break off, and we're looking at what exactly needs to be included," she said.

Why? Well, maybe because the Florida Trail comes with constraints, said Kent Wimmer, the policy and programs director of the Florida Trail Association.

Because it is a National Scenic Trail, landowners must consider the impact to the trail before they approve, for example, clear-cutting of timber or additional hunting.

And though this designation doesn't cost the Forest Service much, the agency is obligated to provide mowers, chain saws and other maintenance equipment.

All of these are precisely the reasons we need to keep an eye on our local sections of the trail, just in case anybody tries to take down those orange blazes.

We want protections that require the state Forest Service, for example, to give the trail special consideration before it allows other uses in the state forest it controls.

And we want trail volunteers such as Mitch Almon to have the equipment they need to keep up and build trails.

I joined Almon on a group hike he led through Richloam Saturday. I was able to see this inspiring, vast wilderness.

I want to be able to keep seeing it. I want to keep it wilderness. That means I want to keep those orange blazes.

Local sections of Florida Trail need to be protected 02/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 12:28pm]
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