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Mining ban sought for forest

The Citrus County Commission is trying to impose its will on the federal government by banning any new mining operations in the Withlacoochee State Forest. Though Florida owns the forest's surface, the federal government owns the rights to the minerals underground and says the county has no right to prohibit mining.

At stake are 1,900 acres in the southern section of the forest near the Citrus-Hernando county line. William Bodie, a mineral officer for the U.S. Forest Service, thinks that only 500 of those acres contain "decent lime rock," but the specific areas that could be mined have not been identified.

One potential mining area surrounds Tillis Hill, a popular spot for hiking, camping and horseback riding.

Florida Rock Industries Inc., already mining rock in a 600-acre parcel in the forest, would like to expand its operations to include the other areas where lime rock can be found.

When the company announced its expansion proposal two years ago, it was greeted with loud protests from the County Commission, environmentalists and recreation enthusiasts.

The mining ban was written into the comprehensive plan because the County Commissioners "did not believe that it would be an appropriate use of the land in a state reserve," said Vince Cautero, Citrus County's acting director of development services.

"The board is just trying to protect the natural resources," Assistant County Attorney Jim Neal said.

Neal says he has asked the Forest Service to prove the county cannot impose a mining ban.

"To date, the only case they've provided is not on point," Neal said, noting the case involved a federally owned forest.

Bodie says the county's mining ban is "constitutionally impermissible" because of the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution, which permits some federal interests to outweigh those of local and state governments.

He recently appeared before County Commissioners to urge them to change the comprehensive plan. If the ban is not lifted, the Forest Service may file an administrative challenge to the plan, said Inverness attorney Clark Stillwell, who is representing the agency.

The challenge would come soon after the state announces its intentions to accept the comprehensive plan, Stillwell said. The County Commission is expected to make final revisions and send the plan to the state next month.

Bob Peace, vice president of Florida Rock, said even if the comprehensive plan ban is lifted, it would be several years before the new mining could begin. The company wants to finish mining its current land and must also win approval from the state and the federal government, he said.

Mining of the new property would take about 15 years. When it was complete, the land would revert back to the state, Peace said.

To compensate the federal government for the minerals, the company has offered to give the Forest Service some land next to a national forest in the state, he said.

The company also would buy additional forest land for the state for the right to use the forest temporarily, Peace said.

Peace argues Citrus County would benefit from additional mining because new jobs would be created and the forest would be larger. "And the supply of stone would continue for road construction and other projects," he said.

"The benefits are so great that the county and the state will probably go for the project eventually," he said.

When the mining is complete, the land will be beautiful, he promised. "You would be amazed to see the outright beauty of the land we've already mined," he said.