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Recreation

Florida Trail Association takes nature in stride

Mitch Almon leads hikers of the Suncoast Chapter of the FTA during an 8-mile walk on the track outside Brooksville.

MIKE CAMUNAS | Times

Mitch Almon leads hikers of the Suncoast Chapter of the FTA during an 8-mile walk on the track outside Brooksville.

RICHLOAM

There are all walks of life walking here.

They're hikers. Conservationists. Mountain men. The physical types, the intellectual types. The spectrum goes on and on at the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Trail Association.

Formed in 1966, FTA serves the development and maintenance of the miles and miles of Florida's trails throughout the state.

"We've had college professors, we've had homeless people and everything in between," Suncoast chairperson Skip Neill said. "We do have all walks of life, all cultures, all physical types of people — short, tall, skinny, fat — and as long as they like outdoors, and even those who just like to socialize and get together, that's basically the only requirement."

The Suncoast chapter, with its more than 700 members, is the largest of FTA's 18 chapters, covering seven counties — Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Citrus and Manatee — and keeps track of more than 400 miles of trails.

Neill and company are working to connect the Citrus, Richloam (near Brooksville) and Croom tracks. There are weekly activities ranging from day-long hikes to clearing and cleaning trails to building bridges where needed on the trails.

"You get a lot of people who join to be supportive and you have a lot of people who want to get out and do the work," trail coordinator Mitch Almon said. "For the most part, our members tend to be over 40 — (we) would love to get younger hikers, but we realize that a lot of our members are people with more free time."

According to the FTA's history, founder Jim Kern, a real estate broker and hiking enthusiast, became fed up driving to North Carolina to hike simply because there were no trails in Florida.

The Forest Service told Kern to go ahead and see who would hike, feeling no one would want to in Florida's heat and flat lands. They were wrong. Later in 1966, Kern had hikers from all over the state, who in turn wanted to develop more than 500 miles of hiking trails.

That number kept growing. Now the FTA wants more than 1,800 miles of trails.

"People who hiked out of state wondered why they couldn't hike in Florida," Neill said. "It just took getting the word out to those to know there were others who wanted to hike in Florida."

As part of the FTA, a hiker can be — or doesn't have to be — affiliated with a chapter; however, a member can participate with any chapter's activities in the state.

When maintenance is done on the trails, Neill says it's "lots of mowing, trimming and making sure to cut trees off the trails" and adds the chapter is always happy to get a new member with equipment to pitch in.

However Almon, who has been with the chapter for more than 10 years, is seeing a decrease in those workers.

"The workforce is slowly diminishing," Almon said. "Gone are the days when 20-plus people would come out and work on a trail. It's a problem we're dealing with, but its nothing dire."

Almon adds the chapter, as well as FTA, is unbiased, at least when it comes to its politics. The group has no agenda, Almon says, but "you don't have to be green to be a part, but a lot of people turn green afterwards."

Though that's not FTA's master plan. It's about keeping trails preserved for future hikers.

That is the reason for the whole association.

"It's not expensive to invest in as recreation," said Ralph Hancock, who's been a member since 1992. "You can do it whenever you want, and there's a lot of folks who have really left a legacy in the trails and bridges they've built, letting other people enjoy them, as well.

"These people just enjoy being outdoors. If they can walk and love being outdoors, this is for you.

Community Sports Editor Mike Camunas can be reached at mcamunas@sptimes.com or (352) 544-1771.

Fast facts

Florida Trail Association, Suncoast Chapter

What: The chapter of the FTA that covers seven counties: Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Citrus and Manatee.

Members go on hikes and perform trail maintenance on the more than 400 miles of trails in the bay area.

Chapter meetings are at different locations on the third Saturday of every odd-numbered month.

Chapter chairperson: Skip Neill

Cost: Membership dues start at $25.

For more information, visit www.floridatrail.org/Chapters/suncoast or contact Neill at (941) 730-9828 or sneill@tampabay.rr.com.

Florida Trail Association takes nature in stride 05/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 7:06pm]
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