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First, let's fire all the park rangers

“Free Spirit" is the name of a female American bald eagle who once lived at Sunken Gardens and now lives at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg. It so happens that when I walked by her aviary about 10 a.m. Tuesday, she was in great distress.

Hanging upside down on her log perch, she struggled and flapped her giant wings and made terrible cries. When she saw me she fell silent. She looked stuck.

I thought about calling for help, then doubted myself, figuring that the eagle probably knew more about perches than I do. This was a mistake — she really was stuck — but fortunately, help had already been called.

When I came back a few minutes later, a park ranger and Gabe Vargo, a USF professor who volunteers at Boyd Hill, had freed the great bird. She lay on her back on the ground, making pitiful squawks as they approached her with soothing voices, blankets and thick gloves. When they got a blanket on her she went quiet and they scooped her up gently.

"Spirit," as she is called for short, has a badly broken leg. She spent Tuesday night in shock, which is a life-or-death matter for birds, but finally took some food and seemed a little better. They were trying to figure out Wednesday whether to perform surgery.

• • •

The city of St. Petersburg and new Mayor Bill Foster propose to eliminate all five of the full-time ranger jobs at Boyd Hill, in favor of a supervisor and part-timers.

The stated justification is the need for budget cuts; a supposed "savings" of $175,000. And, of course, no part of the government should be immune.

However …

Only in the bureaucratic mind does this "save" $175,000. The rangers have been given the choice to move somewhere else on the payroll; then part-timers will be hired and work may eventually have to be contracted out anyway.

So is the target a cost savings — or Boyd Hill itself?

This was a sudden, wholesale sacking. City officials directly and specifically denied to a St. Petersburg Times reporter that they were making any changes three days before they did it.

It smacks of payback and internal politics. City Hall under the former mayor, Rick Baker, was thwarted by public outcry in an earlier attempt to gut Boyd Hill. I do not believe it is coincidence that the city is now taking another whack.

Even if it is penny-wise, which it is not, it is pound-crazy. This is a 245-acre nature preserve around Lake Maggiore in south St. Petersburg, not a parking lot.

The Friends of Boyd Hill, the citizens' group that supports the park, will propose a compromise at the mayor's public meeting this evening to keep at least some of the positions. It will be joined by the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

I did talk to one person with a different viewpoint. Ray Wunderlich III, an environmentalist involved in the dispute over Maximo Park, told me he thinks things have been run loosely at Boyd Hill, and there is room to cut.

In fact, Wunderlich hopes these changes will provide more of a focus on the "preserve" aspect of Boyd Hill, and less on the "recreation" aspect. I am not sure I agree, but told him I would say it.

At any rate, the first "Mayor's Night Out" will be at 7 p.m. today at the J.W. Cate Center, 5801 22nd Ave. N. It will be interesting to see whether the mayor is on hand to hear — or just to tell.

First, let's fire all the park rangers 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 8:30pm]
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photo courtesy Mikell Herrick