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Land buy opens isolated preserve

Old Florida beckoned, even on a muggy morning, as Matt Clemons plunged past a stand of palms and into a leafy thicket off U.S. 19.

"This is one of the prettiest pieces of property we own," Clemons said, swooshing mosquitoes from his face.

The manager of St. Martin's Marsh Aquatic Preserve had reason to feel upbeat. Two hundred and fifty acres that had been inaccessible for years will finally be open to the public.

Last summer, the state purchased a 5-acre tract across from Crystal River Mall. Now plans are under way to convert the property into a parking area and trail head for the larger piece of land Clemons was showing off.

The work, including a 2-mile trail loop, could be completed this winter, provided design work and permitting is in place.

About $50,000 has been budgeted for the access area off U.S. 19. It will include parking for cars and school buses, in addition to a gazebo and an informational kiosk.

What's more, Clemons seeks $100,000 for a quarter-mile boardwalk to an overlook on a small creek that feeds into the Crystal River.

The trail will include interpretive stops where hikers can learn about a particular feature.

In the past, the state considered other ways to open the nature area. But those plans were scuttled, Clemons said, because they either required excessive tree clearing or were opposed by nearby residential areas.

Then, after years of resisting state purchase offers, former City Council member Ed Tolle agreed to sell the 5-acre property, which had already been cleared. Tolle was paid about $1.4-million for the land across from the mall and a nearby parcel.

Developers lost a valuable commercial site, and the city will no longer have the land on the tax rolls, but the environmental benefits are great, officials said.

Like much of the coastal land in Crystal River, the former Tolle property is very sensitive because the aquifer is close to the surface, meaning the groundwater supply can be tainted easily.

Visitors "can see what Crystal River looked like before development," said Tammie Durden, an environmental specialist for the Department of Environmental Protection, who is overseeing the trail project. "It's like walking back in time."

The land represents both tropical and temperate climates, providing an array of plant and animal species, from coontie and jasmine to deer and gopher tortoises.

Clemons drew attention to the trees, noting that as one walks deeper into the property, longleaf pines give way to larger trees, such as magnolia, live oak and loblolly pine.

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