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Environmentalists hope to link state's green sites

Florida's landscape is dotted with isolated pockets of green. This dot of green is a park. A strip of green over there is a river. That patch of green is thousands of acres of state-owned preserved land.

Now, a non-profit environmental organization is asking residents and local officials to help connect the dots.

The Florida Greenways Project, a new program of the 1,000 Friends of Florida, seeks to connect the state's parks, rivers, wetlands, and recreational areas with a network of "greenways," or open space corridors.

"We want to advocate the development of a statewide greenways network," said Mark A. Benedict, who is managing the program for the 1000 Friends of Florida. "A greenway is simply a protected open space corridor that is managed for conservation, recreation and educational purposes."

Residents are being asked to help. Benedict envisions the greenways project as a statewide grass-roots effort with organizations and individuals throughout the state helping to create trails, manage protected land and develop ideas for new greenways.

If successful, Florida's project could become a model for the nation. While greenways have become popular in recent years, Florida is one of only a few states that have tried to create a statewide network.

Florida's project is "an audacious act" that will "lay upon the landscape . . . a parallel network of green corridors," William Reilly, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at the 1,000 Friends of Florida's conference in March in Orlando.

"Slowly but surely, the vision of a national system of greenways comes into focus," he said. "Florida is a bellwether in advancing, developing, bringing on this new concept."

Greenways, in fact, are nothing new. In the late 1800s, for instance, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead used his skills to bring nature into the urban landscape with his parks and trails.

These days, however, greenways have met with renewed interest and the idea tops the list of possibilities among planners and environmentalists seeking ways to bring nature and recreation closer to home.

"It seems to be catching on quite a bit," said Loring Schwarz, state greenway coordinator for the Conservation Fund, which has financed greenways projects throughout the country and is providing a $75,000 grant to get the Florida project off the ground.

Unlike many environmental efforts, the greenways movement reaches far beyond land-preservation efforts.

In isolated areas, a greenway could be a natural corridor connecting preserves and parks and allowing wildlife needed space to roam. But a greenway just as easily could be a paved bicycle route curving through an urban area.

The Pinellas Trail, for example, the bicycle and jogging trail, is a prime example. And state officials are talking about creating a 73,000-acre linear park from the land once pegged for the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

"It takes different forms and different shapes and a different emphasis in each particular location," said Dick Ludington, senior associate in the Conservation Fund's southeastern office. "It can be an urban greenway where the greenery might be potted plants. Or it can be wilderness.

In Chicago, the 120-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor links downtown areas of Chicago with historic sites, prairies and factory towns. By 1995, the Brooklyn/Queens Greenway will be an urban trail, joining parks in Long Island with such structures as Shea Stadium and the Brooklyn Museum.

More rural greenways, such as the 3,200-mile North Country National Scenic Trail, which snakes through New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, provide important corridors for animals as well as natural havens for humans.

Charles Little, who wrote about several greenways projects in Greenways for America, said the idea is not only to get people back in touch with nature, but to get them more in touch with their community and the place where they live.

"They're long and thin and that means they sort of cut across a lot of places and intersect with a lot of people," Little said. "It puts people in touch with their place. The idea is you should be able to walk out your door and down your block and get into a greenway system."

In San Francisco, Little said, a ridge trail surrounding the bay area went far to ease tensions between Bay area cities and open possibilities for regional planning.

In the same way, greenway projects bring together people from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, Schwarz said, not just traditional environmentalists.

Developers often find their projects benefit from having greenways nearby, business interests feel greenways can help the economy, and civic groups like the sense of community pride greenways can engender. In some cases, utility companies have become involved by making their easements available for greenways, Schwarz said.

In Florida, the next several months will be a planning phase. Benedict's job will be to determine how many greenways already exist and collect ideas for new projects. As the first step, he is seeking input from local officials and organizations around the state.

After developing a detailed greenways plan, Benedict will be seeking active involvement from residents around the state.

"We're trying to work with a host of different organizations both public and private," he said.

Organizations or individuals interested in the Greenways project should contact Mark Benedict at 100 Friends of Florida, P.O. Box 5948, Tallahassee 32314-5948, or call (904) 222-6277.