Was it vandalism or research?
Five years ago, an amateur caver named Robert Brooks hacked a small stalagmite from the pristine Brooksville Ridge Cave that he had helped discover.
If just about anybody else had done this, Brooks would have had a fit. He, though, was accompanied by a University of South Florida grad student, who also sawed off a rock fragment and who expected the samples to yield valuable climate information.
They have, said Jason Polk, a USF geologist (not the one who accompanied Brooks) who wrote his doctoral dissertation on data extracted from the cone-shaped formations.
"These samples are the purest calcite ever analyzed at the University of New Mexico facility, thereby providing excellent dating control ... and allowing for accurate, high-resolution climate reconstruction,'' wrote Polk, who presented his findings May 14 at a county workshop on springs, caves and sinkholes.
He was able to track a "little ice age'' of cooler, drier weather between 300 and 500 years ago. Temperatures were dramatically higher 1,000 years ago in the midst of the "Medieval Warm Period,'' Polk wrote.
The older of the two stalagmites (they're the ones that grow up from the bottom) graphically documents the approach of the ice age 20,000 years ago, when temperatures dropped to perhaps 10 to 12 degrees cooler than they are now and rainfall declined to about one-third of its current level.
And then there's Polk's ultimate conclusion: that a trove of potential scientific information this rich should be saved forever.
"It's just a serendipitous harmony of the purest type of rock, the right hydrology and the least contaminants,'' Polk said. "You show it to people who do this kind of work and they are just in awe.''
Remember, this cave also has some of the most spectacular formations in the Southeast. So, yes, it needs to be preserved.
The problem, of course, is that it doesn't belong to us, but to World Woods Corp., which has the right to build 1,680 houses and resort units on the land above the cave.
I'm not saying the County Commission made a good decision when it approved this development, or that the company has been an especially good environmental steward.
County Environmental Planner Dawn Velsor, relaying the concerns of state geologists, asked the company to rewrite its cave protection plan, saying it had not even used the best method to find out how big it is. Considering this, her follow-up objection sounds like understatement:
"A 100-foot buffer around the known extent of the cave system seems inadequate.''
But, I repeat, World Woods owns the cave. That means Brooks was trespassing when he removed the now-famous stalagmite, and that the short answer to my original question is, both. That's right, the most important scientific inquiry of the Brooksville Ridge Cave seems a lot like vandalism.
It shouldn't be this way.
The state has a great program, Florida Forever, to buy just this kind of property and allow it to be protected and responsibly studied. In this market, I bet World Woods would take a fair offer.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature decided it would rather strip funding for Florida Forever than fix our backward tax structure, meaning the chances of adding new properties to the program's list of acquisitions are just about nil.
We elected these lawmakers. We've told them that we care about, above all, low taxes. And this is what we get.
Speaking of the Legislature, it passed a bill (HB 73) sponsored by the lawmaker we elected, Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, whose district covers almost all of Hernando County. In the interest of economic development, this bill cuts the review time for some wetlands permits from 90 to 45 days.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has said this just isn't enough time, and both Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club of Florida are asking Gov. Charlie Crist veto the bill.
On its own, it's "bad and unnecessary,'' said Audubon policy director Eric Draper. Along with another bill that takes water management district permitting decisions out of public view, he said, it becomes a "disaster.''
Just something to keep in mind next election.