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Swiftmud's commitment to saving endangered scrub land in question

"Moonscape" was the most common description of the mined-out southern third of the Weekwachee Preserve when it opened to the public 15 years ago.

"It's been changed unalterably," said Kevin Love, who at the time was the land manager for the preserve's owner, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

But Thursday morning, as we walked north from the entrance on Osowaw Boulevard, it looked as if the hard work of Love and his crew had undermined his own statement.

The landscape has been altered. And many of the devastating changes made by the old mine's bulldozers have in fact been undone.

On visits to the preserve not long after it opened, I'd see crowded stands of spindly sand pines, exotic cogongrass and lots of barren, exposed soil.

Now, after a few applications of pesticides and many controlled burns, the exotics are long gone. They've been replaced by palmettos, ground-hugging bushes, native grasses and well-spaced pines.

This kind of land is called scrub, Love said. And though that may not sound desirable, in Florida it absolutely is.

Scrub was once one of the most common landscapes in the state. But because its dry soil is as irresistible to developers as it is to certain species of wildlife, it is now Florida's most endangered habitat, according to the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Also endangered are some plant and animal species that are specially adapted to this open, arid land, including the federally endangered scrub jay. And last year, a visiting jay was spotted several times in the preserve. Nobody knows if she will eventually build a nest, Love said, "but she was definitely checking it out."

If you're looking for proof that scrub restoration has been successful, you can't do better than a returning scrub jay.

But if there's no question that Swiftmud did a good job managing this land, there is a question about how much the district values that kind of work.

For example:

The agency's once-active land-buying program has been suspended indefinitely, even though it has several million dollars socked away and, given the real estate bust, there are bargains to be had.

The district has embarked on a program to "surplus" land, which in Swiftmud-speak is not an adjective but a verb meaning "unload."

In the drastic reorganization and downsizing of the district, the land management section has been reorganized and downsized more drastically than most. It has about half the staff it once did, when Love supervised 16 land management specialists.

Finally, as of last week, Love is no longer supervising anybody. In early January, after 35 years with the district, he checked out the district's latest reorganization chart online and saw "there wasn't a box for me."

His boss, Roy Mazur, bureau chief for operations and land management, came to his desk shortly afterward and confirmed that Love, 58, would be asked to leave the district "voluntarily," with his other option being to stay and get fired. Mazur also told Love that his approach to land management was "too conservative" for the district.

That word also carries a different meaning in the cubicles of Swiftmud headquarters — that Love wasn't willing enough to consider possible future uses of Swiftmud land. These might include more hunting, more cattle leases, more trails cut into easily disturbed wildlife habitat, Love said.

Mazur declined to give his side of this conversation with Love. He did say that the land surplusing will itself be a conservative process. If the district originally bought 1,000 acres from a landowner to acquire 800 acres of environmentally valuable property, then the other 200 acres may be a candidate for sale.

And the only discussions about cattle leases so far have just been about charging current market price for land the district has leased to ranchers for decades, he said.

Finally, he said, the district is just as committed to environmental preservation as it ever was.

Time will tell, I guess, but it doesn't inspire confidence that Love, who spent his entire career preserving and restoring natural systems, has been replaced by Joe Quinn, a land planner who recently returned to the district after a stint with Coastal Engineering Associates of Brooksville.

Ultimately, the district's approach to land management will come down to whether it thinks people really benefit from conserving land for the sake of nature.

There has been some grumbling over the years about the Weekiwachee's inaccessibility. The gates open to car traffic only twice a month; the densely wooded northern half is closed to mountain bikes, Love said, because it is prime territory for bear dens, and wouldn't be if too many humans roll by. And a few years ago, the district objected to the size of the county's original plan for a swimming park in one of the old quarries, a plan that has since been abandoned altogether.

But on Thursday we saw lots of people in the preserve — a line of cars in the parking lot, a steady stream of walkers on the main entrance road. Two of them, Oliver and Nancy van der Wolf, visitors from Canada, spent time looking out over the clear water in one of the old quarries. They said they couldn't believe they'd found such a quiet spot so close to the sprawl they'd been passing through in their motor home.

"It's beautiful," Nancy van der Wolf said. "We were just commenting to each other, 'It's so peaceful here.' "

Not like a moonscape at all.

Swiftmud's commitment to saving endangered scrub land in question 01/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 11:49am]
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