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Florida Trail should have access to Ahhochee Hill

After I spent a day last summer walking the paths that Mitch Almon and other volunteers had recently cleared, my impression was that this guy builds trails as naturally as bees build hives. He just needed to be turned loose.

That he hasn't been is the main subject of this column, but first let me remind you of Almon's vision.

Instead of a series of loops on separate public parcels, the Florida Trail in Hernando County could lead somewhere; a walk on it could be a journey, as it is in some other parts of the state and on the path that inspired it, the Appalachian Trail.

By last summer, Almon and a few helpers had tied together formerly disconnected portions of the trail in eastern Hernando. But as they blazed a path west, they were stopped by a "no trespassing'' sign in an unlikely spot: the border of Ahhochee Hill, a 270-acre sanctuary owned by Audubon of Florida.

Almon said at the time that he expected Audubon to allow access. Last week, sanctuary manager Christie Anderberg said that's still the plan.

But about 18 months after the Florida Trail Association presented Anderberg with a proposed use agreement, she still hasn't forwarded it to the state organization.

It needs the approval of the committee that oversees the sanctuary, and though its members generally support the trail, they have concerns about the route, Anderberg said. They also must consider the wishes of Lisa von Borowsky, who deeded the property to Audubon at her death in 2001 as a wildlife refuge, not a recreation area.

Since this committee meets only three times a year, I get the feeling that all this balancing of needs and penciling in a perfect, unobtrusive route could take a long, long time. And that's a shame.

Though I expected Audubon members to be especially sympathetic to Almon's goal, I don't mean to single them out. Allowing trails on property is almost always an unnecessarily big deal. And I suspect this has something to do with our gated-community culture and its dread of public access.

Trails, you see, might welcome poachers, vandals and even, as the folks at Chinsegut Manor House once told me, thieves.

I'd point out that much of Europe's farmland is crisscrossed by easily accessible trails. It's one of the continent's greatest charms and tourist draws, according to travel writers such as Bill Bryson, and one reason its urban population seems more tied to the countryside than ours is.

A slightly closer example is Chinsegut Nature Center, accessible by a trailhead built four years ago at U.S. 41 and Snow Memorial Highway. Yes, there has been littering and minor vandalism at the trailhead, but no problems worth mentioning on the trail itself, said director Kristin Wood.

Kent Wimmer of the Florida Trail Association said his organization's trail passes through the Apalachicola National Forest and the nation's largest habitat of the notoriously skittish red-cockaded woodpeckers. So what's the danger of hikers disturbing wildlife at Ahhochee Hill?

Not much, because hikers are a generally respectful bunch.

"You have to look at the type of people who like to walk in the woods. They aren't criminals. Criminals are inherently lazy, otherwise they wouldn't be criminals,'' Wimmer said.

So turn Almon loose. There's really no reason to be afraid.

Florida Trail should have access to Ahhochee Hill 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 1:57pm]
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