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Why allow nature to be casualty of war on crime?

What is your favorite stretch of the Pinellas Trail?

I have several. The easiest to reach on my daily runs was a pleasant little tract once bordered by a narrow, naturally wooded area just north of Curlew Road. Though barely a quarter of a mile in length, it was nonetheless a delightful, quiet place. Always cool and peaceful there, a natural barrier to the noise and pollution of Alt. U.S. 19. One of those special places where one could approach wild rabbits and glimpse quick shiny black snakes wiggling off to safety in the underbrush. Those of us who appreciate these simple things in life understand how Times staff writer Jeff Klinkenberg feels when he says life is more peaceful when connected with the rhythms of nature.

I speak in the past tense describing this once-favorite spot of mine because it has suddenly all but disappeared. Another precious parcel of Pinellas County's nature scene has succumbed to the blade and shovel _ not for the sake of another frivolous land development scheme, thank God _ but for something as questionable and almost as flagrant.

To help fight crime?

Apparently the state highway department has cleared away most of the underbrush in this nearly pristine area for the sake of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Transient derelicts were reportedly living in the woods there, setting fires and allegedly terrorizing people on the trail.

As one who abhors all forms of crime, I would be first to cooperate with the law in the interest of preserving the peace, but to destroy a precious wild habitat just to flush out a few undesirables? Hardly the techniques I would expect of modern-day crime-fighters. Indeed, more like tactics dating back to the cave men. Surely we have progressed beyond such primitive methods of keeping the peace by now. Don't we have helicopters now with infrared cameras and all kinds of advanced equipment for doing this?

I've been running through this area on almost a daily basis since well before the trail's bridge over Alt. U.S. 19 was built, and I've never seen or heard of anyone being bothered there.

Obviously, I'm no criminologist. Yet what's wrong with proven, less destructive methods like stakeouts and routine patrols? With mountain bikes and Crown Victorias at their disposal, the cops shouldn't find that kind of work very difficult.

And everyone should know that this idea of mass habitat destruction is nothing new. Wasn't it applied on a much grander scale in Vietnam? Defoliate the jungle and flush out the enemy was the object then. Is that still the plan now? We have several good jungles left in Florida; we could look foolish here, too.

The Everglades, for example. A serious wilderness, indeed, with a great deal of serious criminal activity going on down there. I've heard stories of soldier of fortune camps where people fiercely practice the art of war. We could drain it and fill it in _ maybe even pave it so the cops could get in easier _ and definitely put an end to all that nonsense in no time. Ocala National Forest, too. I recall a serious crime committed there not long ago. A young girl was raped and her brother's throat slashed in that nasty place. Let's clear out that sucker. Criminals have to learn they can't escape the law in this state.

I wonder if the Army has any of that Agent Orange left. I bet if all the county sheriff's offices pooled their resources into a big enough order, they would get a sizzling good price.

And, while we're at it, let's not forget about the parks and playgrounds. We'd better barricade them up. Sinister characters hang out there all the time. Lock up the bathrooms and string the concertina wire. Wouldn't we be better off without the forests, jungles and parks once they have become convenient lairs for criminals to hide in?

I'm told this area north of Curlew Road will be seeded and maintained. Much of it will eventually grow back. Yet, I wonder. Would the forests grow back too? And the Everglades _ if it really came to that? How about the wildlife? If we ever arrive at the point where we think we don't need the woods, certainly we won't miss the wildlife.

The question that has been festering in its wound for centuries rings louder each day: How many generations of fools will it take to learn what wise men have always known, that by destroying our environment _ even a little at a time _ we will eventually destroy ourselves? Unfortunately, for us all, it's not the wise men who usually get to run the show.

I'm overreacting, you say? Be thankful they saved the trees? But be aware of this: Environmental disaster may be but a bulldozer and chain saw away. There are still more woods and hammocks to the north _ dandy places for vagrants to reside.

_ Rob Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Dunedin.