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Cutting trees to protect a forest

The state says that the cutting in a section of the Withlacoochee State Forest was needed to make room for trees that belong there.

Merlyn Speaker, a hand at Ho's Ponderosa Dude Ranch, drove along a road between the green pasture of the ranch and what, until recently, was a densely wooded corner of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

"As far as you could see, this was all trees," said Speaker, 30, looking at a broad field of exposed dirt scattered with bark and limbs left from felled oaks. A sign at the northwest corner of the cleared area identified it as a "sandhill restoration project."

"I don't think they're doing restoration," she said. "They're destroying it."

Speaker's language is restrained compared to her employer's. Jill Hoch, the owner of Ho's, has complained that the project is ruining her business, which provides rustic lodging for out-of-town guests and leads them on horseback rides into the Croom Tract of the forest.

And Robin Dion, the head wrangler at the ranch in Sumter County, about 2 miles southeast of Nobleton, railed against the project in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times:

"I am tired of being quiet and I will not be quiet anymore. They have totally destroyed the forest. . . . It now looks like the Serengeti Plains in Africa. It is absolutely disgusting."

Representatives from the state Division of Forestry acknowledge the newly cleared 400-acre tract might seem alarming, especially to people who are not professional foresters.

But they say the drastic approach was necessary for some of the same reasons the division has cleared timber in several other parts of the forest during the past two years: including the infestation by Southern pine beetles and growth of oaks too large and dense to be safely eradicated by burning. It differs mainly because circumstances required the division to clear all of the trees, said Vince Morris, a forest ecologist, who added that the trees will be replaced by longleaf pine seedlings.

Though the people at Ho's have been particularly vocal, explaining the project to them is part of a larger effort by the Division of Forestry to educate the public. The division has been trying to get across the seemingly contradictory notion that cutting down large stands of trees can sometimes be good for a forest.

That is especially true when an ecosystem was as degraded as this one was, Morris said.

"The trees that were there didn't belong there. There was a lack of species that did belong there. I saw a lack of understory," said Morris.

Three main factors made the clear-cutting necessary, he said:

The land was covered with slash pines that had been planted about 40 years ago and scrub oaks and other undesirable hardwood species that grew up along with them. Neither are part of the area's natural ecosystem, a sandhill community, which features large longleaf pines hovering over wire grass, palmettos and native shrubs.

The pines were distressed from having been planted too close together on poor soil and from the competing oaks. This made the trees vulnerable to Southern pine beetles and other pests.

Finally, Morris said, the project could protect the forest from future expansion of the Florida National Cemetery. The cemetery was originally built on 400 acres donated by the forest. The federal government requested and received 179 additional acres of forest land two years ago. That donation was justified partly because veterans were being buried at the cemetery at a higher-than-expected rate and because the land was far from pristine.

"Ten years from now, the cemetery is going to take more land from us," Morris said. "The more we can restore, the better chance we can preserve it for good conservation. They aren't going to take the Yosemite Valley and put a cemetery on it, but we didn't have a Yosemite Valley."

Dion said in her letter that the project is benefiting the state, by bringing in money from timber sales, at the expense of wild animals, which are losing habitat.

"What I believe is going on is this is all for money. . . . What is this world coming to when animals are disturbed and moved because of "progress'?" she wrote.

"They've taken out all the vegetation," Dion added in a recent interview. "They have eliminated all the shade. The deer will have no protection from the weather. They are going to be destroying gopher (tortoise) holes."

It is true the Division of Forestry has made some money from the land, but not as much as it would have with a more conventional timber harvest, which was originally planned for this area, said Jerry McCord, a silviculturist.

The cutting began about two years ago, McCord said, with a timber company paying to remove some of the slash pines. That would have made room for the other trees to grow, meaning future harvests would have been more profitable.

However, the widespread damage by Southern pine beetles and several other species was soon discovered there, McCord said.

"I've been with the Division of Forestry since 1966, and we've never had beetle populations at this level, and they are generally in stands like this one that were overstocked with the wrong pine species. This is nature taking it out," McCord said.

So the division decided to clear the remaining pines. But leaving the oaks would have meant the spread of that species on land where it did not belong. So those trees were treated with a herbicide, then cleared away earlier this month _ the logging operation to which Speaker was referring.

Dion may be right that some habitat was destroyed in the short term. But the slash pines and oaks cannot support the species that should be found in a sandhill habitat, especially red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises, Morris said.

Wildflowers and ground cover will begin to sprout up, he said, as soon as the area receives some heavy rain. Some animal species will return quickly, especially turkeys and even deer that thrive in open areas.

"You're going to see way more wildlife there. (The people at Ho's) are going to be our biggest advocates in a few years," Morris said.

Morris acknowledged, though, that some species will not return in large numbers until the trees begin to mature. And, because longleaf pines are slow to grow, especially in the years after they are first planted, that could be a long time.

"Who are they kidding?" Dion said. "We're never going to see trees there in our lifetimes."

That is probably not quite true, Morris said. But even if it is, he said, it does not mean the project is invalid.

Forestry projects are designed to ensure the health of the ecosystem in future decades and even centuries. There is no better example of the long-term effects of such projects than on this land, he said.

Sometime during the 1950s or '60s, it was cleared of native plants. "Huge, heavy choppers were rolled over the ground," Morris said.

"Then the incorrect species for the soil type was planted there, and it failed to thrive in any substantial manner.

"We're still suffering the consequences of that decision."