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Fort De Soto Park getting by with volunteer help

ST. PETERSBURG — Sweat slices through Dave Littlefield's close-cut silver hair as he scoops the ashes off the ground and dumps them into a metal bucket.

Campsite No. 209's last inhabitants left a mess.

"They aren't supposed to do that," Littlefield murmurs as he grabs a charred log left beneath a grill.

On most days, Littlefield, 62, gets paid to tend the golf clubhouse at his Spring Hill subdivision. But not Thursdays.

On those days, he gets into his white pickup truck and makes the 60-mile trek to Fort De Soto Park, where he spends at least four hours pulling weeds, taming overgrown branches and making sure campsites are ready for the next visitor.

Littlefield and his wife are park regulars. When Pinellas County cut back on maintenance, he noticed.

He wanted to help fill the void. Ask him why, and he points to the clumps of grass that have grown as high as a fifth-grader.

"You never would have seen it growing like this four, five years ago," he says, shaking his head. "Why shouldn't I do my part?"

• • •

At 1,136 acres, Fort De Soto is Pinellas County's largest park. Its beaches are ranked among the nation's best. Millions come here each year to frolic, fish, kayak, bike and scope out wildlife.

It's busy season now, with about 350,000 visitors expected this month.

On the surface, things seem to be rolling right along. But take a closer look, and the cracks start to appear.

The grass grows taller, mowed only every three weeks. The paint on the picnic tables is chipping, no longer touched up by professionals.

While the park remains as popular as ever, its staff has been drastically reduced by budget cuts.

Five maintenance workers now do the work that 48 did six years ago.

"Our level of service is not quite what we'd like it to be," says Jim Wilson, the park's supervisor. "Right now, we're just treading water."

• • •

Volunteers like Littlefield try to fill the gap.

Five years ago, before all the budget cuts, Wilson says volunteers put in between 2,000 and 3,000 hours. But during the past year, the volunteers — there are about 100 now — logged 14,000.

Littlefield and his wife, Karen, 64, first stumbled upon Fort De Soto Park shortly after they moved down from New England about seven years ago.

They started camping at the park once a month.

In the past few years, they started to notice the park wasn't as pristine.

It took longer for trash to get picked up. Mangroves started growing higher and higher along the water's edge and began to block the view in some places.

Eventually, it got harder to fit their fifth-wheel trailer into their campsite; overgrown trees were crowding the space.

So in the fall, they walked into the park headquarters and asked how they could help.

Karen works full time as a business office manager at two Pasco County surgery centers, but she tries to come down whenever she can. The couple spent a recent Saturday clearing away dead brush on the beach.

"They just showed up," says park ranger Chris Muhrlin. "A lot of people are really stepping up to the call. We're trying our best."

But that may not cut it forever.

Even with volunteers like Littlefield, Wilson says, the park won't be able to absorb any more cuts.

That's why he, Littlefield and other supporters want the Pinellas County Commission to approve a $5-a-vehicle user fee.

"You can go shelling, you can go fishing, you can go kayaking," Littlefield says. "Is $5 really too much? Even if it was $2 a carload, think of the revenue it could bring in to keep this place up."

County commissioners rejected a similar proposal last year after a public backlash. The fee, which could generate $2.5 million a year, may be more palatable this year because complaints about park maintenance have been rising.

"It's not about pricing people out of the park," Wilson says, noting that the Friends of Fort De Soto has offered to buy 500 passes for those who agree to volunteer. "But we're running out of ideas. It's getting to feel a lot like the last stand here."

• • •

Littlefield glances down at his clipboard. Campers from site No. 192 did a pretty good job cleaning up before checking out.

No ashes on the ground. No clotheslines left behind.

"It's not so bad," Littlefield says, hopping out of his cart.

He slides a small gray broom out of the back and begins to clear off a dusty green picnic table.

He surveys the site, then looks out to a channel where he and his wife like to kayak. He remembers the summer they brought their grandkids here, and the looks on their faces when they saw a manatee swim underneath them.

Littlefield and his wife recently sold a timeshare they owned in St. Maarten. They don't feel like they need an island getaway with they have a park like this so close.

"When you live in New Hampshire, St. Maarten's pretty cool," he says. "But … nothing compares to this. It's a gem."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

>>Fast facts

Fort De Soto Park at a glance

Category2005 2011
Spending $4.8 million $3.3 million
Revenue $1.9 million $2.6 million
Staff 81 36
Category2005 2011
Spending $4.8 million $3.3 million
Revenue $1.9 million $2.6 million
Staff 81 36

Fort De Soto Park getting by with volunteer help 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 8:39pm]
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