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Group honors forest as "cool'

Nature lovers always knew this sprawling 154,000-acre state park of swamps, rivers and sand hills was something special. But who knew it was cool?

The World Wildlife Fund did, naming it one of the "Top 10 Coolest Places You've Never Seen" in North America.

State officials said the forest's hipster designation will probably mean more visitors.

"There are some neat gems in this forest, once you get off the trails," said Winnie Schreiber, the forest's manager. "It's diverse."

The Withlacoochee State Forest is about 10 miles in from Florida's Gulf Coast about 60 miles north of Tampa. The preserve occupies the center portion of Citrus County in a rough rectangular shape, running south into Hernando and Pasco counties and including part of Sumter County.

"With so many fascinating places in this country, being listed as one of the top 10 is a real honor and confirms why many of us sought out this area to call our home," said Ron Miller, president of the Citrus County Audubon Society. "Citrus County is Mother Nature's theme park."

One other place in Florida, Dry Tortugas National Park on the extreme western end of the Florida Keys, made the World Wildlife Fund's "Coolest Places" list.

The WWF described the Withlacoochee as "representative of the pine forests of the U.S. Southeast, where mature stands of longleaf pines have created a habitat type found nowhere else on Earth.

"Allowing generous amounts of light to reach the forest floor, longleaf pines create perfect conditions for a rich collection of understory plants _ as many as 200 species at a single site."

The forest also includes the Withlacoochee State Trail, a paved path that runs from Trilby in Pasco County through Hernando County and the forest and on through Floral City, Inverness, Hernando and finally to the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon.