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Budget cuts hitting close to home // CHINSEGUT MIGHT CLOSE

Unless the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission receives significant additional funding from the Legislature, the popular Chinsegut Nature Center may soon find itself as endangered as some of the rare animal species it seeks to protect.

Lt. Col. Greg Holder, director of the commission's south region, said his department faces a $3-million budget deficit that is forcing it to consider eliminating various wildlife research and education programs.

If a way to bridge that financial shortfall is not found by the end of the legislative session this spring, he said, the 408-acre Chinsegut center, at 23212 Lake Lindsey Road north of Brooksville, could be forced to close as early as July.

"There is no priority as to which will go first, but Chinsegut is on the list of proposed cuts," Holder said. "As far as I know, it is the only facility of its kind we are looking at."

Game and fish biological scientist supervisor Jim Oehler said research programs on black bears, striped bass and non-native fish, as well as a gopher tortoise relocation program, are also being considered for elimination.

Because of decreased revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and less money allocated by the state government, he said, the gradual erosion of wildlife programs has been common and inevitable during the past few years.

"They made some cuts last year, and we lost a number of resource biologist positions," he said. "Without them, we couldn't continue with a lot of our eagle and alligator research."

Founded in the 1960s by game and fish biologist Steve Fickett, who is now a member of the board of directors of the Hernando Audubon Society, Chinsegut offers a variety of programs to the public. It also sponsors classes for home-schoolers and educational programs for groups of 10 or more people, including school field trips.

Fifth-grade students from Eastside Elementary School particularly enjoyed the center's livestock seminars.

"They had a live cow with a hole in its stomach, and you could stick your hands inside," Eastside teacher Pam Hendrick said. "Some of the little girls were grossed out by it, but to fifth-graders that kind of thing is pretty cool."

Most of the classes and seminars at the center focus on wildlife and environmental protection, although some also have historical themes. Chinsegut has been the site of the annual Pioneer Day in November, an event that celebrates events and personalities from Hernando County's history.

Although records show that the state game and fish budget has steadily increased the past two years, Holder said those figures are misleading. Much of the commission's money is tied up in trusts and other exclusive funds that target specific types of wildlife, such as the Florida panther.

Revenue from the popular Florida panther license plates, for instance, can be used only to help the endangered cats and cannot go toward any other wildlife programs. As those types of donations have risen steadily, Holder said, state allocations for general revenue, which the department can use in any programs that need them, have decreased.

"We first started to see cutbacks about seven or eight years ago, when the state was in a recession," he said. "But now that things have improved, we had hoped to see some of those monies back. The state has its priorities, like prisons and such, but we feel that what we do is important, too. We'd like the funds to continue them."

The commission has begun a black bass license plate campaign similar to the panther's to try to take some of the funding burden off the Legislature, but Holder does not know whether sales will generate enough money to save Chinsegut.

One full-time biologist, center director Kristin Wood, and a part-time employee work at the center at a total salary cost of about $55,000 a year. An additional $7,700 is allocated annually to the center for expenses.

Many think Hernando County will lose a valuable and popular environmental facility if the center is shut down.

"It would be a terrible thing, really, to have to close it," Fickett said. "There's going to be a lot of very disappointed people if the nature center's operations were interrupted."

Speaking from Tallahassee, a surprised Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she would make sure the Game and Fish Commission's plight is brought to the attention of the Legislature.

"I knew something like this would happen when I left the environmental committee," she said. "I'll talk to Sen. (Donald) Sullivan (chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee) in the morning. If the community usage is there, we need to make sure this place will continue."

Although Holder and Oehler remain optimistic Chinsegut can be saved, Wood was given sobering instructions from her superiors that dampened her own spirits.

"I was told not to schedule any events at the center after July 1," she said.