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Chinsegut Hill about to be deserted, thanks to federal funding cuts

Chinsegut Hill, north of Brooksville, has long been home to two major landmarks.

First is the 165-year-old Manor House, one of the most significant antebellum properties in Central Florida and the former home of two of Hernando County's most famous residents, Raymond and Margaret Robins.

Second has been the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Agricultural Research Center on 3,800 acres of pasture the Robinses donated in 1932 with the requirement that it be used to study farming science.

The Manor House, as has been reported, was all but abandoned by its longtime leaseholder, the University of South Florida, in 2009.

Now it's the research center's turn.

This year's federal budget included no money for the operation of the center, which until a few years ago employed more than a dozen research and support workers, said Sam Coleman, the former research leader at the center.

Coleman was transferred to another USDA facility in Oklahoma last year, and the last department worker was pulled out of Chinsegut in June.

University of Florida scientists have worked there with their federal peers for decades, said Jack Payne, the school's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. It seemed natural for UF to take it over, and it would have been feasible if the USDA had been willing to hand over the center's cattle and equipment.

"It was originally pitched as a turnkey operation," Payne said

When he found out that the equipment and cattle would instead go to other USDA operations or be sold, he said, "that just left us with a piece of land." Severe cuts to higher education in Florida and the university's ownership of three existing cattle research ranches made it hard to justify acquiring a fourth, he said.

So the university's last couple of employees and 150 head of cattle will depart at the end of the month. This will leave the station even more deserted than the Manor House, where there is at least one remaining USF worker to perform basic maintenance.

Now not only do we have to worry about the deterioration of the Manor House; we have to think about the probable slow collapse of the offices and barns at the center, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

That was during the Depression, of course, when the economy was in a lot worse shape than now. And yet, the government started this program to employ young people and build parks, to prevent erosion and forest fires.

Now, Chinsegut Hill's only function seems to be reminding us of what we aren't doing: preserving natural lands and history, advancing science — traditional public functions that would generate value locally and beyond.

Nobody knows what will happen to these buildings and the land, including the 114 acres around the Manor House. Both properties are basically waiting for a public agency to claim them.

Maybe, when there's more money around, the state Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will take over the land and put it to a good, appropriate use.

But if the future is uncertain, the present isn't.

"It's a sad state of affairs," Coleman said.

Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter @ddewitttimes.

Chinsegut Hill about to be deserted, thanks to federal funding cuts 08/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 6:06pm]
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