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Tension grows in the forest

It's easy to find peace in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

About 5 miles northwest of Brooksville, just a few hundred yards from Croom Road, a hiking trail leaves an oak hammock and enters a longleaf pine forest.

The ground there is covered by a mat of wild grape vines; the tops of the trees wave in the wind 60 or 70 feet in the air. This wind is about the only sound to be heard.

Unfortunately, it is also easy to find conflict in the forest, or at least by talking to the people who use it.

The Croom Tract _ one of three main tracts that make up the 129,000-acre state forest _ attracts mountain bikers, motorcycle riders, horse riders, hikers and hunters. Interstate 75 and State Road 50 cut through it. So does the new Withlacoochee State Trail _ managed as part of the state park system _ which has been attracting about 1,200 people a month.

The truth about the state forest, especially the Croom Tract, is something most people in Brooksville probably don't suspect: It is considered a mecca for outdoor sports people in Florida.

"It draws a tremendous number of riders from Tampa, Orlando, Ocala, Daytona," said Wes Eubank, president of the Southwest Association of Mountainbike Pedalers, who is himself from Tampa.

"If you look at the license tags over there, you see them from counties all over the state, because the area offers so much that you can't get anywhere else."

Said Ethel Palmer, president of the Florida Trail Association, a hiking group:

"Brooksville is, of course, the center of our world."

And according to Jon Blanchard, resource manager for the forest, Croom "is the busiest part of the busiest state forest in Florida."

The problem is that all of these groups want the forest to themselves, or at least a part of it. Hikers and horse riders don't like bikers destroying their peace. And bikers and hikers object to the deep hoofprints left by horses.

And none of these sports is compatible with the traditional focus of forest management: harvesting pine trees (about $450,000 worth per year throughout the forest) and setting controlled burns to maintain habitat.

"You can imagine what it's like to burn when you have several hundred people using it every day," Blanchard said. "People call in and say, "What is all this paint on these trees? You aren't planning to sell these, are you?' Yes, we are."

The complications grow along with the number of users, though this figure is hard to determine because the site is a state forest, not a state park. Most daily visitors don't need to pay for a permit or for admission. There are no gates and few rangers to count cars.

But Jeff Montgomery, who manages recreation in the forest, said it draws between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors a year, more than half to the Croom Tract, and that this number is growing by about 20 percent a year.

"That's a guesstimate (and) it's conservative," he said.

When the forest

wasn't a forest

This never used to be a problem with the forest because who, after all, wants to visit clear-cut sandhills?

"The lumber barons of (the early 1900s) proceeded immediately to strip the rolling country of the forests, leaving behind acres of denuded soil on which Mother Nature's erosion could do its worst," the Evening Independent, a defunct St. Petersburg newspaper, stated in a 1938 article titled "Uncle Sam reforests Florida's wasteland."

"People were trying to live there, and it's hard to subsist on sand when you don't have water and you don't have fertilizer," said John O'Meara, state land supervisor for the Division of Forestry.

Actually, only 56 families lived on the 113,000 acres in 1935, when the federal Resettlement Administration started to buy it for $4.20 an acre.

To fight erosion, encourage wildlife and make work during the Depression, the government paid locals to build bridges and plant slash pines. By the time the state bought the land in 1958 _ for $54 an acre _ it was almost as wooded as it is now.

But it still didn't get many visitors other than hunters, O'Meara said. And the state allowed uses that would be considered heretical now, opening most of it up, for example, to cattle grazing.

"Timber management was the priority," O'Meara said. "Recreation was secondary. Now I'd say that outdoor recreation, without a doubt, is No. 1."

Horse riders vs.

mountain bikers

The biggest group of users, mountain bikers, is also the newest. And their dealings with the state best illustrate how hard it is to divide the resources of the Croom Tract, which, despite its popularity, is far smaller than either the Citrus Tract to the north or the Richloam Tract to the east.

It has always had horseback riders, hunters and hikers, though there are now more of them, partly because many more people live on the edge of the forest.

The sport of biking, on the other hand, descended on the forest suddenly, said Edward Duval of the Division of Forestry.

"Even 10 years ago, who would have thought we'd be talking about people riding bikes through the woods?"

As recently as three years ago, Croom attracted only a handful of riders. Now, unquestionably, it is considered the best public land for trail bike riding in the region, Eubank said.

Hillsborough County offers only two overcrowded trails, he said. Virtually nothing is available to the south. It is not uncommon for riders in Fort Lauderdale and Miami to drive to Croom for several days of riding and camping.

Early on a recent Saturday morning, cyclists started appearing at the trail head near the Tucker Hill fire tower like fireflies coming out in the evening.

By midmorning _ and this is the slow season _ there were about a dozen carloads of cyclists in the woods. All of the cyclists objected to sharing their trail with horses.

Some said confrontations are rare; some said they are far too common.

"One horse can go through and leave divots. And, of course, there are the road apples," said Bob Cain, 33, of Riverview. He was pulling on his helmet and preparing his $1,400 bike for a ride of about 30 miles.

It was by then nearly 10 a.m. He is usually up at the forest at dawn, which is why he sees few horses.

"Horses and bikers don't mix. Boy, that's a disaster," said Dave Dewey, 58, of Orlando.

"It's really irritating. You're really enjoying your ride, and then you come into all this bumpiness. . . . Don't get me started."

The horse riders feel pretty much the same way about the bicyclists.

"Now and then I have to yell at them," said Mary Ann Herne, former president of the Croom Trail Horsemen.

"The bicycles are real quiet, and basically all the horses see is something flying by. It sneaks up on them. . . . They're everywhere. It's like a rat's nest out there."

But both groups, as well as hikers, say conflicts have been rarer since the bikers have started using a trail originally cut for an annual overland motorcycle race.

There are well more than 70 miles of this trail, and the cyclists generally confine themselves to the part north of Croom Road, Eubank said.

Horses usually set off from Twin Ponds, which is well to the south, Herne said.

The system would work well, especially for the experienced riders who know the trails and know to give horses a wide berth, Eubank said _ except for one hang-up. Though his group has been riding these trails for more than two years, the Division of Forestry has not officially designated them for bicycle use.

Lynne Bolton, the Brooksville city planner who is also on an advisory board to the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, plans to get $50,000 in grants to build restrooms and dig a new well at Tucker Hill.

But she can't present the idea to the MPO until she knows for sure that the trails will be open to bikes. The Southwest Association of Mountainbike Pedalers, which has volunteered to maintain the trails, cannot yet put up permanent signs or distribute maps.

"People from out of town, they don't have a clue. They get lost on a regular basis," Eubank said. "I hear horror stories all the time."

Still awaiting decision

on trail for bikers

Bolton, who is also a cyclist, said she and the Division of Forestry had tentatively agreed on which parts of the trail would be open to bikes and which would not. But recently, she said, the division informed her the plans had changed.

For the most part, she blames Blanchard, the forest resource manager. And for the most part, he accepts it.

"It's my fault," he said.

He said the state has allowed the bikers to use the trail on a test basis. Because the Division of Forestry has few workers and has had three ranger positions cut from its budget in recent years, it must make sure it can depend on the mountain bike association to maintain the trail in the long run.

He is now convinced it can, he said. "Overall, we've determined this is a good user group," he said.

Studies of the condition of the trails have convinced them that, except for some steep slopes, bicycle tires cause only slightly more erosion than hiking boots.

He said he hopes to work out a final agreement with the mountain bike group in the next two months. This probably will divert riders from Tucker Hill, already the primary trail head for hikers and near a busy horse trail, to a spot closer to the Withlacoochee State Trail.

He also said he envisions a shorter bike trail than the group would like.

That addresses a larger issue: Once maps are distributed and the bike trail appears in state publications, the number of riders may explode.

"This is the single largest increase in the recreation use since the motorcycle area was created (in the 1970s)," Blanchard said.

"This is not something I want to jump into lightly."

Beyond recreation:

protecting the forest

He made clear the reasons for his concern, as well as the depth of it, when he toured the Croom Tract on a recent morning.

"My job is to protect the forest," he said.

He is someone who gets noticeably thrilled when he passes a patch of woods that was the site of a recent controlled burn and is rebounding nicely.

The turkey oaks that were starting to compete with the pines are now waist-high. The forest floor is covered with newly sprouted wire grass, a favorite food of gopher tortoises.

"That is gorgeous. Look at all the flowers in there. This flower response is just beautiful here," Blanchard said.

He gets disturbed when he sees the large swaths of the forest floor covered by cogon grass, an aggressive, exotic species, or what was formerly pine forest crowded out by oaks.

Only 3 percent of the sandhill community that once covered most of the Southeast now remains, he said. It is worth protecting _ from overgrowth and from overuse.

"That's something we're not willing to compromise on with all these uses, and that's losing ecosystem," he said.

"When you've lost a sandhill community, you've lost a treasure."