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Chinsegut Nature Center director leaving; wildlife commission wants more of a 'facilitator'

Before addressing a nonsensical decision by Kristin Wood's supervisors, let's look at what a great job she's done running the Chinsegut Nature Center.

In February of 1995, when she arrived at the center north of Brooksville, it was a drab, dated, 1970s-era building crowded by large oaks in what was supposed to be a pine forest.

"The public had no access to the land. There were no events and the people hired to run it were not interested in using that wonderful resource,'' said Cindy Liberton, a longtime board member of the Hernando Native Plant Society.

Now, nearly every weekend, there's a nature walk, workshop or festival — some of which have become community standards.

If you went to Pioneer Day in November to watch the butter churners and blacksmiths, you probably had to park on Lake Lindsey Road and walk past a long line of cars. That's how popular it is.

The T-shirts for Chinsegut Run and Fun Walk each February aren't tacky throwaways littered with corporate logos. You get a keepsake with the hand-drawn image of, say, a swallow-tailed kite. The trophies aren't gold-painted trinkets, but potted trees. That way, you learn something during the award ceremony — the soil the tree likes, the wildlife it might attract.

"She just never seems to get tired of talking about things, showing people things," said Michael Wollam, a retired biology professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College, who often brought classes to the center.

"I've always been impressed with her ability in natural history,'' he said of Wood, who has an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Vermont, her home state, and a master's degree in wildlife management from Texas A&M. "I can't remember a plant or butterfly or bird she wasn't able to identify."

This knowledge has helped bring in experts to lead workshops and nature walks. They respect her, said Marc Minno, who has a doctorate in zoology from the University of Florida and is the author of several books on butterflies. Other regulars are just as knowledgeable about lizards, wildflowers, snakes and dung beetles — "the whole gamut,'' Minno said.

They return year after year because Wood gives plenty of advance notice and promotes their talks to make sure these highly qualified folks don't end up talking to empty rooms.

"Afterward, she always sends a handwritten thank-you note,'' Minno said. "She's just been lovely to work with. She has built up such a nice program there."

The oaks have been cleared, restoring habitat for wildlife that prefers longleaf pine forest; that was part of her job description in her first few years on the job. In the once drab building there are murals on the walls even in the restrooms. Look in the mirror above the sink and a barred owl looks back.

These were painted by some of the 50 or so volunteers who help out the center. They also helped build the butterfly garden — each species identified with a sign the size of an index card — and the gopher tortoise trail and the collection of bird feeders. This is the size of a kid's playground and, after Wood filled the feeders Tuesday morning, was just as busy.

Red-headed woodpeckers are a sociable bird, she said, right before a half-dozen of them gathered around a shallow clay birdbath, pecked a hole in the ice and took a drink. She pointed out the neat holes drilled in the trunk of a laurel oak, the work of yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

"The sap attracts insects, and he comes back and feeds on the insects and the sap," she said.

As Wollam said, Wood, 49, is a nonstop teacher.

The problem is, her bosses at the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission don't want that as much anymore.

"We're extending the responsibilities of the position," said Wood's supervisor in Tallahassee, Anne Glick. "The easiest way for me to describe it is going from being a classroom teacher to a principal."

They want the new director to apply for more grants, produce reports quantifying how much the center's visitors have learned, work with the other agencies involved with the nearby Chinsegut Manor House property, which the commission will soon take over. They want more of a "facilitator," Glick said, and more "outreach."

Wood doesn't want to write grant applications all day, and that's one reason that Thursday will be her last day on the job. But the fact remains that Glick asked for her resignation and accepted it.

Glick has no idea how hard it is to get children from behind computer screens and out into the woods, maybe because Chinsegut is the commission's only education center. She has no idea how much harder it is when, as is the case at the center, there is nothing spectacular to show off, just 408 acres of pine forest and wetlands that in recent years have usually been dry.

She doesn't seem fully aware of the facilitating Wood has done with volunteers and expert speakers or her outreach to groups like the Boy Scouts, who helped build the small forest of bat houses on the property.

To me, these skills don't differ much from the ones listed as requirements for the new job.

What seems more likely? That someone as smart and energetic as Wood, a bargain at $36,000 per year, can adjust to these duties, or that the state can bring in a naturalist, bureaucratic wiz and expert schmoozer, for the even more paltry salary of $33,000, and that this new person will be able to fill all these roles working alone, as Wood has done for most of her time here?

I know what birders, native plant people, science teachers, and nature-minded parents around the county would say.

"Everyone involved in advocacy — we are universally not pleased,'' Liberton said.

The decision seems to have been made now, and Wood is a subdued New Englander who doesn't like fuss. But I don't think it would hurt for those of you who know Wood to e-mail Glick at anne.glick@myfwc.com to let her know how you feel about Wood leaving.

That way Glick would at least have an idea.

Chinsegut Nature Center director leaving; wildlife commission wants more of a 'facilitator' 12/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 6:59pm]
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