A few hundred yards from the entrance of Conner Preserve in central Pasco County, a little trail-side sign says what alert hikers can see for themselves: They are entering restored habitat.
Instead of bahia grass in this vast former cow pasture, there are now countless tufts of native wire grass — favorite food of gopher tortoises, preferred nesting cover of beleaguered bobwhite quail and carrier of life-sustaining fire.
I came here to see the work of senior land manager Mary Barnwell, one of 32 employees the Southwest Florida Water Management District targeted for layoffs because of massive budget cuts. The word from Tallahassee is that the state's water management districts had become so bloated that they might actually benefit from a trim of several hundred million dollars.
Now the districts can "focus on their core environmental missions," Herschel T. Vinyard Jr., secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said last week.
Strange, then, to turn loose of Barnwell, because I'd always thought of her as doing nothing but the district's core mission.
To see more of her work, I could have looked at the scrubland restoration near Weeki Wachee Springs, which wasn't at all popular when it began a decade ago.
"It was basically clear-cutting the city of Weeki Wachee," said Kevin Love, Barnwell's longtime boss at Swiftmud.
But Barnwell "was bold," Love said. "If she thought something needed to be done, she did it. She wasn't daunted at all."
The dense growth of sand pines, many of them dead or dying, was "a keg of dynamite waiting to go off," he said.
Besides removing this fire hazard, the clearing encouraged the growth of flowering plants such as scrub rosemary and Curtiss' milkweed. Gopher tortoises followed, Love said. And though there are no reports of rare scrub jays returning to nest, they could probably get along just fine.
Or I could have gone down to the Green Swamp, where Barnwell designed and carried out an innovative restoration program — replanting an old orange grove with seeds from grass, legumes and other plants taken from nearby natural lands.
"It's gorgeous, just gorgeous," Love said. "She championed the thing. She got the budget approved; she made decisions about methodology and how to go about it and then worked 50- and 60-hour weeks to get it done right."
Barnwell didn't spend all of her 16 years at the district working on special projects. She was also responsible for the routine maintenance of Swiftmud's landmark natural tracts in the northern part of the district, including the Weekiwachee Preserve.
To all of them, she brought back the regular fires that used to be common in wild Florida. In the Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County, the controlled burns turned a marginal population of scrub jays into one of the healthiest in the state.
"The place is lousy with scrub jays," Love said.
And as fire does almost everywhere in the state, it benefited a wide range of native plant and animal species. "If we have a core mission," he said, "then fire is our core mission."
What about protecting the water supply? Isn't that Swiftmud's core mission?
Yes, and healthy habitat means purer runoff, less erosion and water returning to the aquifer maybe faster and definitely cleaner, Love said.
"Good quality natural land equates to good quality hydraulic function. Period."
Environmental activists, who by and large adore Barnwell, blame her departure on the groups pushing to open more Swiftmud land to hunting.
The hunters say they don't have that kind of power, but do say — wrongly, according to Love — that Barnwell was anti-hunting, and several of them celebrated the news that she was leaving on the Florida Sportsman website.
One of these posts, by the leading proponent of expanded hunting, Chuck Echenique, was headed, "SWFWMD'S BIRD LADY IS NO MORE!!!"
But think about what Barnwell's departure means for natural lands and the state's commitment to protecting them. Consider the bargain we were getting with her $54,000 salary.
Then get rid of the all-caps and the exclamation points because this isn't a time to cheer, but to mourn.