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Environment advocate leaves post

When Matt Clemons arrived here in early 1987, Crystal River State Buffer Preserve was less than 2,000 acres, hardly a hedge against commercial development of the sensitive coastal wetlands.

Under his guidance, the preserve swelled to 36,000 acres, stretching from the Withlacoochee to the Homosassa River.

"We see degradation of water bodies left and right, but you go into the preserve areas and the water quality is good, and it is staying good," Clemons said on a recent afternoon.

He was in a reminiscent mood, looking back on a 17-year career with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "I'll miss the feeling of accomplishment."

Clemons, 47, left the agency Friday. He was hesitant to explain the reason for quitting, only that he was tired.

"I was getting a little bored there," he said. "I'm not getting into the field anymore. Basically, I've become an administrator, and that's not where my interests are."

Friends and associates say the county has lost a major advocate for conservation. "I hate to see him go," said environmentalist Helen Spivey. "The community has lost one of its biggest assets."

Working from the former Yacht Club, west of Woodland Estates, Clemons oversaw the buffer preserve, St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve and Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, 150 miles of estuaries and marshlands from St. Marks to Yankeetown.

The office is in a prime location and provides DEP officials easy access to the vast preserves. Acquiring the property was no easy feat.

The state was outbid by a Clearwater company in early 1997, and Clemons watched that company lease the property to a gambling operation. The SunCruz casino boat caused an uproar because it reportedly damaged the river bottom.

"I was really disappointed," Clemons said of losing the property. "We had worked quite awhile on that."

A year later the state wrestled the property from River Marina Enterprises, paying $1.2-million, a quarter million more than it was willing to pay previously.

But it was worth it, Clemons said. The property allowed him to create an educational center and provide public access to a network of trails within the buffer preserve.

Usually a placid landscape, the preserve has been the source of its own controversy.

Wild hogs that live there have from time to time terrorized nearby residential areas, chasing children and tearing up well-kept lawns.

The porkers uprooted endangered flowers, altered drainage patterns and rendered some roads impassable.

In the early 1990s, a plan was devised to reduce the hog population: bring in bow hunters from across the state and let them loose.

More than 200 signed up, hoping to bag one of the pigs, which can weigh as much as 600 pounds. But without explanation, state game officials canceled the hunt.

"That's one thing we never really did get a grip on," Clemons joked. "Hogs are always a controversy. They always will be."

Through it all, Clemons' legacy is perhaps his effort to conserve the natural areas he has grown to love.

He played the role of advocate, working with local residents to garner support for land acquisition. The state is hesitant to purchase private land, thus taking it off the tax rolls, without public support.

"It's to preserve part of Florida for future generations," Clemons said. "If the government doesn't buy it, it's going to get paved over."

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