LITHIA — Beyond housing developments and grocery stores, people and cars and noise and nonsense, there is a wilderness.
At first glance, it seems empty. But look closer. There are lichen patches, tortoise dens, yellow swallowtails. It's a National Geographic photo spread come to life. Welcome to the Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve: a nearly 5,000-acre jewel nestled in east Hillsborough. Exploring the whole thing takes several hours — bobbling over bumps, gunning it through sandy dunes, pulling over for mountain bikers and stopping to watch an alligator slither into what was once a phosphate mine. Green is everywhere.
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The county bought Balm-Boyette, a fraction of its nearly 60,000 acres of conserved land, for about $16 million through the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. It acquired the vast majority of the preserve in the early '90s, with the rest coming in about 10 years later, according to county records.
It holds Hillsborough's largest section of continuous pine scrub habitat, a shrubby, sandy terrain home to many common and endangered Florida creatures, said county conservation manager Ross Dickerson. There are also swaths of marshes, hardwood and flatlands.
County conservationists have worked for a decade to restore the preserve to its natural state. They say they'll probably work at least a decade more.
"We consider this our poster child preserve," Dickerson said. "People have got to get out here."
Plenty already have.
Mountain bikers zip around about 20 miles of hilly trails.
Hikers trot around vast fields, and fishers drop lines into water-filled old phosphate mines.
Scientists study endangered species. Volunteers build nesting boxes to shelter bluebirds. Botanists revel at rare flowers, including an endangered orchid found just last month.
And others, maybe fewer than Dickerson understands, come out here just to unwind.
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Ken Bradshaw, who coordinates preserve management, swatted a fly off his face as he crunched through sticks and leaves on a recent drive through the preserve. He reached out and plopped a blackberry into his mouth. "Pretty good," he said before taking a swig of water from a pocket canteen.
He jumped in the passenger seat of a county SUV with Dickerson behind the wheel. Bradshaw gave directions — turn left at that bush, turn right at that other bush.
Another day at the office.
Up ahead, a gopher tortoise. Bradshaw followed it into the bushes. Dickerson said the turtle, a protected species, is probably one of hundreds on the preserve.
Bradshaw pointed out the window to a bit of Florida golden aster, an endangered native plant.
The pair, who make maintaining a habitat look more like leisure than labor, stopped for a closer look.
Dickerson, Bradshaw and crew roam the land to survey plant growth and watch for poachers or invasive weeds. They scour the ground for gophers and skies for scrub jays.
Sometimes they call a hunter to capture a wayward wild boar.
Sometimes they call the law when someone burglarizes a car in the parking lot.
But on a typical day, it's quiet. Dickerson and Bradshaw point here and there, explaining what it looked like before they came along.
Getting to this point wasn't easy.
It took time, money, and most important, fire.
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On a recent morning, flames shoot from the earth, crackling and gobbling up everything in sight. Helmeted men sprinkle accelerants to guide the fire this way and that.
This is a prescribed burn: conservationists' primary means for refurbishing the preserve to the open, dry habitat it once was.
Soon, the smoke clears and dust settles. If old trees or stubborn brambles remain, crews may plow through with saws and machines.
The process leaves the earth charred and chopped.
"It almost looks evil," Bradshaw said, surveying the ashen land.
But soon, plants and animals forced out by overgrown brush will return to the fresh air and sunlight.
"This is what our forefathers saw," Dickerson said, at the edge of a recently burned field dotted with sprigs of green.
Setting fire to encourage habitat growth is nothing new.
American Indians did this regularly, Bradshaw said. Mother Nature pitched in with lightning strikes.
Nowadays, a plume of smoke from the woods spawns panic from drivers and homeowners, who perhaps remember Smokey Bear.
Human-caused wildfires are still bad, Bradshaw said, but there's nothing wrong with regular burns for restoration. As development creeps closer to nature, though, it's easy to get off schedule.
Just the other day, officials canceled a prescribed burn at the Cockroach Creek preserve because the wind wasn't right — it was blowing toward the highway.
"It was once called the boondocks." Dickerson said with a shrug.
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Don't get him wrong. Dickerson has no problem with roads and houses and modern conveniences.
But it's getting to be like the brush before a burn: overgrown.
Dickerson is from Long Island, N.Y., but he doesn't recognize it anymore. There's too much stuff where nature used to be, he said.
With subdivisions springing up faster than people can fill them, east Hillsborough is starting to remind him of home.
He feels better out here with dirt in his boots.
This land, he notes, was slated for development before the county scooped it up.
He gets quiet.
"It's nice," he said, "when all you hear is birds."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.