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Numbers look grim for Hernando's public lands

It's good to know some people in Hernando County still care about public lands.

Seven of them, to be exact.

That was how many volunteers showed up at Cypress Lake Preserve on Saturday for a cleanup marking National Public Lands Day.

Notice I said "marking," not "celebrating," because these are grim times for the once-popular notion that tax money should go to preserve environmentally valuable lands.

The state's main land-buying program, Florida Forever, is looking strictly temporary now that the Legislature cut its funding to nothing.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, likewise, won't spend a penny on land acquisition next fiscal year.

And I guess that's one advantage of the political retreat from land acquisition: the numbers are easy to keep track of. Zero is also the amount the county has devoted for this purpose, which became official at the County Commission's final budget hearing Tuesday. After shuffling around shells for a while, $578,368 disappeared from the Environmentally Sensitive Lands fund and showed up under mosquito control.

And the $7.1 million already socked away for, perhaps, setting aside a bridge of natural land between parcels of the Withlacoochee State Forest, will be slowly drained for parks maintenance.

But wait, you might say, didn't voters long ago agree to this small tax — less than a dime on every $1,000 worth of assessed property — specifically to preserve green spaces?

Sure, but don't worry. Commissioners assure us everything they did is perfectly democratic. They'll even let us vote on it — in 2012.

Obviously, that's way too late — not only long after their money grab, but after this action sent the message our votes mean so little there's really no reason to show up at the polls.

How can the commission get away with this? Because nobody cares, at least not nearly as much as they care about a slight bump in the tax rate. Or the possibility of taking property off the tax rolls, which is one of the arguments against preservation, and one reason the millions in the Sensitive Lands Funds haven't been touched in years.

That's the least the county can do now, find a good project for that voter-designated money. For one thing, we won't necessarily lose tax revenue if the county follows the common practice of buying development rights, not the land itself. By doing nothing now, when prices are low, the commission is missing a bargain. And with the state having pretty much abandoned growth management, paying landowners is about the only way to stop them from covering the county in pavement and Floratam — once there's demand for that sort of thing, of course.

That's why it was so nice to spend a few hours Saturday morning cleaning at Cypress Lake — 331 acres of county-owned land on the Withlacoochee River — even if I was carrying a trash bucket. The people there realize all this and, generally, realize that green space is good.

With 34 percent of the county in preserved lands, don't we have enough? Maybe not. It's cut up in so many different chunks that if the open space between them fills in, these natural lands won't function very well as ecosystem. And maybe you think the following seems alarmist, but I don't, considering, for example, that sea level rise and dropping flow in coastal springs is destroying habitat so fast you can almost watch it happen: If we don't have a functioning ecosystem, we don't have a livable planet.

Then there's preservation's under-appreciated contribution to economic development: it makes us look nice. Face it: Nobody wants to move or visit places that don't.

Yep, those volunteers know all this and talked about it as they worked. And yes, they represent a tiny minority, but they were willing to back up their beliefs with a few hours in the heat, filling garbage bags full of rusted paint buckets, brown beer bottles and faded Busch cans.

So maybe, one day, the commission will actually listen to them.

•••

If you love Brooksville and respect the legacy of Jerome Brown — and, I'd say, the two are hard to separate — then NFL Films has produced a show you'll want to see: Reggie White and Jerome Brown: A Football Life.

It airs on the NFL Network at 10 p.m. Thursday and will be featured at the Red Mule Pub in Brooksville, co-owned by Brown's longtime friend, Tim Jinkens.

Numbers look grim for Hernando's public lands 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 7:04pm]
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