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Column: North Florida's 'junk' parcels anything but

Tate’s Hell, a state forest in North Florida, gets few visitors but is not a wasteland. It filters air and water and provides shelter to wildlife like bobcats, bears, turkeys and gopher tortoises.

Special to the Times

Tate’s Hell, a state forest in North Florida, gets few visitors but is not a wasteland. It filters air and water and provides shelter to wildlife like bobcats, bears, turkeys and gopher tortoises.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's proposed sale of select state-owned lands pits region against region, lobby against lobby. Conservationists around the state feel forced to pick their favorite parcels and fight for them in a zero-sum game.

High-profile, heavily trafficked parks presumably enjoy the best prospects for continued conservation. Already, a series of parcels, including pieces of Wekiwa Springs State Park, Cayo Costa State Park and Oleta River State Park have been removed from the sale list. Highly populated Central and South Florida have registered their opposition.

Even after winnowing, the size of the list still challenges the resources of the environmental lobby. Less-trafficked, quieter tracts around the state seem destined for sale, failing to attract champions. Charles Lee, Audubon Florida's director of advocacy, says, "Our view is sell the junk and keep the gems."

Many of these so-called "junk" parcels on DEP's list are located in the Panhandle — the wildest, sparsest region in the state, just now catching the eye of developers.

Consider Tate's Hell, located in Franklin and Liberty counties in the Panhandle. Legend tells that in 1875, farmer Cebe Tate, armed with a shotgun and a pack of hunting dogs, braved the swamp on an errand of vengeance. For seven days and seven nights he sought the panther that killed his livestock, enduring snake bites and swamp juice-induced hallucinations. As he finally made the coast and breathed salty air, he shrieked one last time, "My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from hell!"

Tate's Hell's terrain can stop a tank. The wetlands of Tate's Hell resemble another bog of legend: the Fire Swamp in William Goldman's The Princess Bride. Cottonmouths, snapping turtles and gators cross countless creeks. Fire ants dot the roadside, threatening anyone stopping long enough to snap a photo. The savannah's tall grasses draw blood — and in this park, anything worse than a scrape can turn septic en route to its lone ranger station.

Tate's Hell receives relatively few visitors; it provides little direct stimulus to the economy. Yet, North Florida's and the rest of the state's wilderness areas are not wastelands. They filter water and air supply and shelter to bobcats, bears, turkeys and gopher tortoises. Bald eagles perch on the crowns of the tallest pines. Inside North Florida's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the rare Florida panther was spotted last fall.

Wilderness preserves Florida's identity. It attracts herds of photographers, painters and writers who contribute to the state's iconography — a resource for tourism. Those who wander the wiregrass with a paintbrush and pen follow in the footsteps of William Bartram, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and the Highwaymen, naturalists whose work defines Florida in the national imagination.

Perry-born novelist Michael Morris returns to Florida's Panhandle every year for inspiration. "The pristine marsh and wetlands tucked inside protected land like Tate's Hell found their way into my novel Slow Way Home. Many readers talk about their perception of Florida as a roadside attraction state. Places like Tate's Hell help to show them a different part of Florida — the real Florida."

Miami-born painter Adam Straus often depicts Florida's vanishing wilderness. "Artists do a lot simply by documenting the beauty of what they see — and by acknowledging that it is finite," says Straus. "It is one way of saving and preserving it."

Tallahassee painter Stuart Riordan suggests that corporate advertising of Florida's wilderness can generate tourism. "Buses could be wrapped with a beautiful scene of the state park that the corporation endorses, with company logo highly visible. For example, 'Wells Fargo loves Wakulla Springs,' beside a relevant graphic. Many people don't know the beauty of North Florida's state parks. This could be a new merger of conservation, art, and business for Florida," says Riordan.

The road and service access available to DEP's list of parcels suggest that residential development is their fate.

The state should scrap its entire list and expand conserved acreage through the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment. The development of even one acre of parkland would ruin its primeval spectacle.

On a clear autumn evening, Tate's Hell State Forest resembles a scene from Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — anything but a Florida postcard. The air is cool and crisp. The light is as majestic and clarifying as Martha's Vineyard's. Century-old red-headed cypresses lose their leaves and become skeletons. Black creeks slowly empty the season's losses into the Gulf of Mexico, where the water turns the aquamarine that the Sunshine State sells to the world.

The wilderness keeps Florida's remaining mysteries.

John Dos Passos Coggin is the author of Walkin' Lawton, an authorized biography of the late Florida U.S. senator and governor Lawton Chiles. Coggin will discuss the book at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading Oct. 26. He wrote this column exclusively for the Times.

Column: North Florida's 'junk' parcels anything but 09/16/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 16, 2013 5:34pm]
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