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Baleful signs dare visitors to pass: "No vehicles, airboats, dumping, digging, dogs, hunting or trapping devices allowed."

But look closer. There, under the "NO TRESPASSING" warning, is this in tiny typeface: "except to those on foot."

Go on in, Floridians. It's yours. You own it. Swiftmud, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, will even show you how to get here.

This is Jack Creek, a 2-square mile area south of Sebring that holds some of the world's rarest plants. It's one of the more recent purchases under Preservation 2000, "the most ambitious land acquisition program in the world today," as one observer describes it. "Nobody else in the world is doing what Florida is doing."

Since its inception four years ago, Preservation 2000 has provided a handful of Florida agencies with nearly $300-million a year to place as much environmentally important land as possible into the public domain by century's end.

The record to date: About $1.2-billion has been spent to acquire more than 350 square miles. If combined, the sites would be roughly 1{ times the size of Pinellas County. Even so, that represents only about 20 percent of the land destined for public ownership by 2000.

"I do not know of a program anywhere that duplicates Preservation 2000 in its size and commitment," says Jack Peterson, assistant director in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's regional office in Boise, Idaho.

So far, the purchases have included a dizzying array of environments. Cypress domes, beaches of sugary white sand, hardwood swamps, world-class springs, desert-like scrub, wet savannas _ all are now in the public domain.

As these unique properties have entered the public inventory, officials have realized that the public has a right to see them. Last month, Swiftmud, one of the biggest buyers, printed 15,000 guides to district lands. Some of the sites are well-known parks operated by other local governments, but many are not.

Despite the forbidding signs, Swiftmud is encouraging visits. Vehicle gates are still padlocked, but hikers, bicyclists and horse riders now have fence openings to pass through.

It almost didn't happen.

"At the rate Florida is developing, without Preservation 2000," Peterson says, "it wouldn't have been long before Floridians would have had to go to other states to enjoy open, public lands."

Getting serious

The idea for Preservation 2000 was first hatched in a committee formed by then-Gov. Bob Martinez five years ago.

"We realized that we had to change the direction of conservation," says John Flicker, an architect of the plan and state director of the Nature Conservancy.

"It was becoming clear that regulation itself wasn't doing the job. . . . Nobody was accomplishing what they had set out to do: Environmentally important sites weren't being preserved and developers weren't able to complete their projects. Outright purchase and complete control of a site was the only permanent answer."

Any doubts about public support have been answered by a series of local votes around Florida. Time and again in the 1990s, voters have approved local tax increases when the money has been specifically designated for public land purchases.

The local efforts _ now nearing $500-million _ havebeen surpassed only by Preservation 2000. State law encourages the combination of state and local money to help boost the purchasing power for more land purchases.

This morning, legislators from the Tampa Bay area hope to build on that public support during a news conference at Upper Tampa Bay Park. They want a permanent source of money for Preservation 2000.

The money so far has come from a tax, in the form of documentary stamps on such public records as deeds, mortgages and liens. As it stands now, the Legislature must appropriate the money each year.

However, State Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, and state Rep. R. Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater, want to dedicate a portion of the documentary taxes directly to Preservation 2000, so legislators won't be tempted to tamper with the program.

"I think the public perceives that we're really serious about this," Flicker says. "They know we want to save entire ecosystems, and I think that helps the positive public response to it.

"This place was really ugly'

Since the birth of Preservation 2000, purchases have ranged from single-home lots within wildlife preserves in the Florida Keys to a 38,000-acre swath of the Green Swamp in eastern Pasco County.

Some of the land reflects Florida's boom-and bust cycles.

Take Topsail Hill, 300 acres encompassing 20-foot-high sand dunes and a freshwater lake in the Florida Panhandle. Arguably one of the nation's most beautiful beachfront locations, it was destined for development as an exclusive resort in the mid-1980s. The land alone was appraised at $80-million in a booming real estate market.

But its owners were swallowed up in the recession and the savings-and-loan debacle of the late 1980s. When the federal Resolution Trust Corporation auctioned the site in 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet needed just 48 minutes to make an offer with Preservation 2000 money.

The state purchased Topsail Hill for $20-million _ and got the 18,000-acre Point Washington tract to boot.

"Basically, Florida got Point Washington for free," says Melva Macfie, communications director of the nature conservancy. "The governor and Cabinet had expected to pay that much for Topsail Hill alone. There have been some great deals done."

In Central Florida, the Green Swamp had been logged, drained and mined for decades. A lumber mill and a plant to make and bag cypress mulch had marred the landscape since the 1960s.

Today, though, only vestiges of the mill and plant remain. Six-inch-high slash pine seedlings now grow where the mill's concrete foundation was broken up and carted away. Thousands of acres more have been identified for habitat restoration.

"The place was really ugly when we got it, but you can already see it beginning to come back" says Swiftmud property manager Kevin Love.

Swiftmud made a big contribution to restoring the Green Swamp with its purchase last year of nearly 60 square miles in eastern Pasco. More purchases by other agencies are coming.

Like homeowners toiling over their lawns, Swiftmud crews are literally plugging the Green Swamp back to health.

In the 80-acre clearing where the mill stood, workers use truck-mounted tree spades to bring in 30-inch-wide plugs of native plants _ palmettos, trees, ground cover _ from similar terrain nearby.

If all goes well, the plugs will grow out, connect with each other and foster the reintroduction of native species.

"This kind of work is pretty untried," Love says. "Basically, we're experimenting as we go."

Restoring the land is a daunting task, involving nearly 38,000 acres of forests, meadows and wetlands. In time, though, a renewed Green Swamp and the rivers that rise from it will stretch in an unbroken mosaic from Tampa Bay east almost to the front gate of Walt Disney World.

Three hours to the south, at the very edge of Swiftmud's jurisdiction, lies Jack Creek. The site is in the heart of the Lake Wales Ridge, about 10 miles south of Sebring.

Old tires, rusted-out water heaters and beer cans line the way to Jack Creek, but the 2 square miles of land within its borders feature a "scrub habitat" _ a bizarre combination of desert and rain forest.

Trees are smaller and gnarly. Leaves are leathery to better retain moisture. Patches of bare, sugary white sand are common.

Despite all the rain this part of Florida receives, almost 5 feet a year, water drains through the sand so quickly that plants have adapted as if water were a scarce commodity.

Another of Swiftmud's new jewels is the Flying Eagle Ranch, a 10,720-acre spread in the heart of the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes, about 2 miles east of Inverness in eastern Citrus County.

The ranch's eastern boundary hugs the Withlacoochee River. Miles of wetland prairies offer big, open vistas, which should now be preserved for all time.

"If you travel in Europe, you'll find that public lands are almost nonexistent," says Peterson, the federal land manager.

"But in the U.S., from the settling of the eastern colonies to the westward pioneer movement, the ethic of public land, of having the ability to walk across an open space and to see a horizon of mountains, trees or wetlands, is something that Americans have always treasured."

To learn more

Want a copy of Swiftmud's new recreational guide to its properties? Call (800) 423-1476 or (904) 796-7211, or write the district's Land Resources Department at 2379 Broad St., Brooksville, FL 34609-6899.