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Port Richey park is a portal to nature

PORT RICHEY — At Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, Toby Brewer must be patient if he wants to see eagles nest, foxes prowl, otters splash — or humans wander inside.

Brewer is manager of the park, 3,500 acres of coastal wilderness that have remained mostly inaccessible to the public save for a half-mile walking trail on the eastern edge of the property off Scenic Drive.

Brewer, who last month won one of the state's highest environmental honors, says there has been progress in getting the public more access to the park, though he acknowledges it's hardly obvious.

"It looks like things are moving slow," he said, "but there really are things going on behind the scenes."

One piece will materialize this summer: The first phase of a paved access road, just north of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at U.S. 19 and Ridge Road, will be built. It's still unclear when all the stuff at the end of this new road — a parking lot, a canoe launch, bathrooms — will be added.

Dolphin Constructors of Tampa was awarded a roughly $1-million contract to put in about a mile of road and infrastructure for future amenities such as bathrooms, said Department of Environmental Protection information officer Jessica Kemper. The firm has started its surveying work and expects to finish the road construction by August.

Those amenities, which Brewer said will also include access to trails, are part of a second phase that is under design now. Construction of this second phase will likely require another $1-million.

Kemper said department officials will request that money next fiscal year, but "with budgets very tight, it is not guaranteed."

State plans originally called for the road and most of the amenities to be built in 2002, but construction has been held up due to a lack of funding and permitting delays.

Brewer said he'd also like to build a boardwalk near these trails to lead people to the park's namesake salt spring, which runs 320 feet deep.

"If you're going to have people going back there," he said, "we want to have something to protect the property."

Later will come plans for a larger parking lot at the park's northern border, on the western end of State Road 52, said Brewer. There are already trails on that end but many of them flood and are unsafe for most people until the park can build some boardwalks, he said. The trail network on the northern end could eventually be about 10 miles, he said.

Even without much of a human presence at the park, Brewer, 51, has found plenty to do over the last four years. A soft-spoken man with a striking resemblance to the late Dale Earnhardt, Brewer lives with wife Dot in a state-owned house on the park's southern end, off Old Post Road.

"I can always go in the woods and find something to do," he said. "I still mow the grass around my house."

In awarding Brewer the Jim Stevenson Resource Manager of the Year award on Feb. 26, the Department of Environmental Protection said the 30-year veteran had worked hard to heighten public awareness of the park and keep the place in good shape.

The award cited his establishment of a prescribed burn program, an exotic plant management plan and a program to engage high school students to test water quality at the park.

The Werner-Boyce park was never intended to be a hub of human activity. For one, Brewer said, "It's a big, wet swamp so we're kind of limited in what we do."

"It is so gorgeous," said Linda Tracey, president of the Salt Springs Alliance, a citizens group. "It's not the kind of place where you need a playground.

"But we do have to make some access."

Birders and nature lovers like Tracey and her husband, Ken, have already explored a good bit of the park. They have kayaked inside — you can start from Port Richey's Brasher Park — and they have also explored trails on the park's northern end off State Road 52.

The Traceys and other alliance members plan to take people down the trails on the northern end one evening in May, arrive at a clearing and wait for the nighthawks to arrive and put on a show.

Brewer said he understands many people are eager to finally get a chance to explore the property.

"The fact that it's purchased and protected is the important thing," he said. "It's under the state system. It's not going to be developed."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

>>Fast facts

About the park

Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park sits to the west of U.S. 19, and its 4 miles of coastline consist of mud flats, seagrass beds, salt marsh and mangroves. The property is nearly 3,500 acres of verdant marshland with patches of uplands and sandy flats and a web of creeks and lakes.

Five eagles nests have been seen at the park this year.

The park is named for Gene Werner and Bill Boyce, the developers who sold most of the land to the public at a discount.

Port Richey park is a portal to nature 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 11:37am]

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