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"A fantastic piece of land'

Richard Hilsenbeck presumably appreciates mountain views and fast-flowing streams.

But what really excites him are gentle sand hills with plants that Floridians have a history of taking for granted _ turkey oaks, papaws, gopher apples and, especially, long-leaf pines.

"This is a fantastic piece of land," said Hilsenbeck, a protection ecologist with the Nature Conservancy. On Monday, he and Betsey Donley, a field representative with the conservancy, drove and walked through 5,242 acres the state is buying from the developers of Sugarmill Woods. Their view was of long-leaf pine saplings, gray wire grass and several small, bushy varieties of oak.

"It doesn't get any better than this in Central Florida," he said. "I couldn't be happier than being in a sand hill."

The land is nominally part of the Annutteliga Hammock preservation area, which could eventually cover nearly 29,000 acres along the Citrus-Hernando county line. The conservancy, a private, non-profit organization, has negotiated the purchase of three parcels, said Donley, who worked nearly five years on the deal: the tract in Sugarmill Woods as well as 1,585 acres in Seville and 930 acres in World Woods Golf Club.

The Sugarmill Woods parcel, with a purchase price of $14.8-million, is both the most environmentally significant of these and the one the state will own soonest. Love Properties Inc. and PGI Inc., its owners, expect to close the deal Friday, said Buddy Selph, the companies' local representative.

The large tract will serve as a bridge between two massive holdings, the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest to the east and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding state-owned land to the west. Its sandy soil allows water to quickly seep into the aquifer, so it is crucial to the health of the coastal springs to the west: Weeki Wachee, Chassahowitzka and Homosassa. It supports a huge array of wildlife, from indigo snakes to black bears.

But it is not, at least not most of it, a hammock.

It is, instead, a sand hill community. That may sound less appealing than the oak groves associated with hammock land. But it has at least as much environmental value.

The conservancy, which conducts worldwide inventories of land, classifies sand hill communities as "globally impaired," said Hilsenbeck, who drove with Donley from Tallahassee to tour the land.

True sand hill habitat occurs only in Florida. And because by definition they are high and dry, much of these lands were devoured by developers.

Sand hill communities are characterized by plant species hardy enough to cling to the sterile soil, most notably long-leaf pines. These have deep roots to soak in nutrients and water. Their thick bark allows them to withstand the fires _ usually caused by lightning strikes _ that periodically race through sand hill communities. They actually need bare soil because the seeds from their cones, which are typically about a foot long, need sand to germinate.

The Sugarmill Woods parcel represents the largest community of long-leaf pines in private ownership in the Brooksville Ridge, which extends from Pasco County to Gilchrist. But Hilsenbeck can also point out countless species that have a place and function in a sand hill habitat.

Gopher apples hug the ground and have light-green leaves that look like a laurel oak's and, in the fall, fruit as large as a large grape. As the name suggests, they are a favorite of gopher tortoises. So are the many varieties of legumes; they can take nitrogen from the air, which allows them to survive on the barren ground.

Scanning the ground, Hilsenbeck sees the krameria. "It's got a gorgeous, orchid-like flower," he said, picking up an intricate, bright red specimen less than an inch across. The queen's delight is related to the poinsettia, he said, and like it is highly poisonous.

Just east of the power line that runs through the property, Hilsenbeck came to the one large area of hammock in the parcel. In the 1930s, this was the site of a turpentine still, and the bricks from the settlement and the metal barrel loops are still strewn on the ground.

Because the workers lived there, he said, the naturally occurring fires were extinguished. This allowed the oaks to gain a toehold. The long-leaf pines were lumbered when the operation closed. As a result there is a striking stand of live oaks, all about the same age _ a canopy supported by angled, twisted limbs.

It is not typical sand hill habitat, Hilsenbeck said. And he had to admit it was probably the most strikingly beautiful part of the property.