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Let's hope Chinsegut doesn't get the ax, too

Just two months ago, Jerrie Lindsey was the symbol of heartless, out-of-touch Tallahassee.

On Thursday, she was in town telling folks about the new — and ultimate — symbol of heartless, out-of-touch Tallahassee: our new governor, Rick Scott.

Lindsey is the director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's recreation office. That means she was Kristin Wood's boss' boss, one of the bureaucrats who made the call to squeeze Wood out of the job she had excelled at for nearly 16 years — director of the Chinsegut Nature Center.

Those great events that brought crowds from miles away? Pioneer Day, Welcome Back Songbirds, the Reptile and Amphibian Festival, the bat and owl prowls? They were Wood's doing.

Those touches that gave the place style — elegance even? Hand-carved wooden birds handed out as trophies at the annual 5K, the murals of wildlife scenes, the butterfly garden and the artificial brook gurgling between bird feeders? Wood did that, too, or her volunteers did.

There were lots of these volunteers, too, more than 50. And they signed up because they liked Wood or at least the atmosphere Wood helped create.

"Everybody who comes to this place falls in love with it," said Doris Roman of Inverness, who along with her 10-year-old son, Israel Diaz, was among the dozen volunteers who met on Thursday with Lindsey at the center, 5 miles north of Brooksville.

It was no surprise, then, that when Wood left, a lot of these unpaid workers threatened to do likewise.

And then Scott came along with an even grimmer view of the future of Chinsegut. This man doesn't take an ax to budgets; he uses a Caterpillar D9. He doesn't cut; he topples and crushes.

And among the offices he plans to eliminate in his proposed budget is Lindsey's. The move would save $1.3 million, but also get rid of several badly needed statewide programs that help Floridians see and understand the environment, including all of them at the Chinsegut Nature Center, the commission's only full-fledged environmental educational facility.

As we've already seen, Wood, with her $36,000-a-year salary, generated thousands of hours of free, often highly skilled labor. That helps explain how the center came to be such an outstanding bargain for taxpayers.

Consider it attracted nearly 10,000 visitors last year, many of them school kids with few other chances to spend time in the woods. Consider its potential, with the planned addition of the adjacent grounds of the Chinsegut Manor House, to become a regional tourism draw. Now consider its stunningly minute total programming budget: $76,389.

You thought getting rid of Wood was a shortsighted, incomprehensible decision? What about getting rid of Chinsegut?

Lindsey didn't frame it this way, of course, and I should make clear she didn't try to enlist any of the volunteers to save her job or office.

"I'm not here to lobby you to lobby," Lindsey said.

She just told volunteers about the budget situation and that, because of it, her office had postponed naming Wood's replacement. She pointed out that Scott's proposal is only that, a proposal, and that the Legislature makes the budget. (Reassuring, isn't it, to know Chinsegut's future is in the hands of such champions of the environment as Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Speaker of the House Dean Cannon?)

Lindsey also said that she and everyone else in her office understands the state's dire financial situation, the need for every department to make sacrifices. (What she didn't say is that those cuts have to be a lot deeper because the expected $3.6 billion budget gap will be a lot bigger because the governor plans to grant generous tax breaks to corporations.)

None of the volunteers I talked to after Thursday's meeting or a subsequent one Friday morning thought letting go of Wood was the right thing to do. But they were all ready to put that episode behind them, prepared to buttonhole local businesses and state lawmakers and do whatever is needed to save Chinsegut.

With the shadow cast by Scott, Lindsey didn't seem anything like the ogre that some Wood loyalists made her out to be a couple of months ago. She came off as concerned and reasonable. And, though she was talking about her own job, not Wood's, one of her comments might even qualify as profound.

"We have to remember," she said, "Chinsegut is bigger than any one of us."

Let's hope Chinsegut doesn't get the ax, too 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 12:30pm]
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