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Nature's harmony rebuilt

For Linda Vagts, taking children to the Florida Rock Industries wildlife habitat is more than just a day in the sunshine. It is hope for the future.

The Florida Department of Education recognized Florida Rock Industries Sunday for its environmental education program.

"It's important to teach everyone respect for the environment," said Vagts, the office manager who coordinates Florida Rock's Project HELP, short for Helping the Earth and Loving Nature with Protective Kids.

Environmental education is one of the three categories in which the non-profit Wildlife Habitat Council awards corporate certification.

Florida Rock is already certified in the other two categories _ individual species management and habitat management.

Over the last year, Vagts estimated, 500 Hernando County schoolchildren have come to see and study what was once a 1-acre borrow pit and is now a corporate wildlife habitat.

"It's like another world here," said fifth-grade teacher Sue Atkins, who brings her Spring Hill Elementary School students to study at the stretch of reclaimed land.

Atkins, who over the summer helped develop 20 lesson plans for Florida Rock's educational program, said exposure to the beautiful scenery reinforces the children's learning.

"We strive to find tasks to help keep them focused," she said. "Otherwise, they just race through to see who can finish the trail first. We want them to focus and see nature in a different way."

Atkins said the most important thing she can teach her students is how difficult it is to fix an ecosystem once it has been ruined. Her students study how to enrich the nutrient-depleted ground by planting legumes, like cow peas, to replace nitrogen in the soil.

"It's not easy working out there," Atkins said. "They've learned how hard it is to fix what we destroy. Hopefully that will help them make better choices when they are older."

Vagts said that of the Brooksville Quarry's 3,500 acres, approximately 1,200 are hardwood hammock forest, wetlands or open fields available for habitat enhancement projects.

As more and more students come to study the wildlife habitat, Vagts said, educating them may become a full-time job.

"So many people point the finger at industry," she said. "But if you look at what we as individuals waste in a day, it's alarming. We're teaching these young people that everything you do affects the ecosystem. We are all responsible for the environment."