NEW PORT RICHEY — State officials rolled out a new 10-year plan for Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park on Wednesday, including plans to open the park's main entrance on U.S. 19 to visitors.
Passersby might have noticed new landscaping and paving at the entrance just north Ridge Road in Port Richey. But the road leading into the park is permanently blocked.
Park manager Christine Dorrier said she is only waiting on one thing to open the gates: a sign.
"In order to get the sign out front we have to get it permitted like everybody else," she said at a workshop Wednesday evening that attracted about 30 park boosters. "It's just a matter now of getting the permit from Pasco County."
Dorrier said she could not give a time frame for the opening. But she assured one patient attendee, "That front gate is going to be open in your lifetime, without a doubt."
Opened in 2001, the 4,000-acre Werner-Boyce is one of Florida's newest state parks. But it's hardly accessible to visitors without a boat. There is just one entrance, at the intersection of Scenic and Cinema drives. That area primarily has a half-mile trail and small picnic area.
"I'm frustrated by the lack of funding for this park almost since its inception," said Sharon Holding, a volunteer at the park for the past 10 years.
B.J. Givens, an assistant bureau chief overseeing state parks in southwest Florida, said officials have $470,000 "in the bank" to add more parking and a boardwalk at the park's southern end. Officials are now trying to find $300,000 for a bathroom, so the park doesn't open with port-a-potties.
"We're just trying to get the bathroom money so we can give you a complete park," he said.
Most of the 51,000 visitors to the park last year were boaters, including an avid group of people with airboats, kayaks and canoes. Future plans call for a new kayak and canoe launch near the parking area at the park's southern end, as well as signs to mark kayak and airboat trails.
Ed Caum, who works in Pasco's tourism department, said the county is also working with state park officials to build a new hiking and biking trail along the eastern edge of the park. That would require the state moving the park's boundary back by 10 feet. The trail would cost about $3 million.
But the plans don't only call for recreational improvements. A key reason for the park is to preserve a large swath of habitat for threatened plants and wildlife.
"It will always have the intent of preserving a lot of the area for the native wildlife and the flora and fauna," said Constance Cranford, a leader with Boy Scout Troop 8 in New Port Richey. "That's almost a designed plan within this park, that it's not to be accessible to all four corners of the park."
She added: "It's kind of our own little treasure right here."
The park is home to several species of imperiled plants. Threatened species include the gopher tortoise and Scott's seaside sparrows. The park is also home to four eagles' nests.
Officials annually treat about 100 acres of exotic plants and conduct routine prescribed burns. There are plans to eliminate miles of mosquito ditches inside the park, and officials also want to study how to keep untreated stormwater from flowing off U.S. 19 into the park.
Jennifer Carver, a park planner for the Department of Environmental Protection, said officials are trying to strike a balance: "Where best can we put recreational resources while still preserving the natural and cultural resources?"