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Timberrrr! Harvest to thin park's flatwoods

To the untrained eye, the pine flatwoods in Lake Seminole Park are a beautiful refuge from the urban jungle of Pinellas County.

But to Fred Stager, supervisor of the 250-acre park, the forest is in need of some tender loving care. After decades of uncontrolled growth, the flatwoods are slated for a make-over. A major make-over.

Beginning in early May, the county will undertake its first timber harvest in one of its parks. Workers will thin out a 100-acre area of the park, which is surrounded by a paved nature trail. About half of the trees, many of which are diseased or dead, will be cut down and sold to a mill. A machine then will trim thousands of saw palmettos that cover the ground.

"What we're trying to do is thin this out so we can get fuller canopies and healthier trees," Stager said Thursday while standing in a patch of tall, slender pines.

Simply put, there is a density problem in the flatwoods at Lake Seminole Park, said Mike Perry, a supervisor for the Florida Division of Forestry who oversees Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The planned timber harvest will provide a more natural-looking forest and improve the quality of wildlife habitat, Perry said. "Yeah, people are going to cry and whine that they are cutting trees down, but it's a necessity," he said.

Mother Nature usually does the job of thinning forests through lightning strikes and brush fires. But with homes so near, fires at the park are extinguished immediately, Perry said.

The timber harvest will benefit the environment in several ways, said Debbie Chayet, a horticulturist for the county's park system.

+ In the event of a wildfire, or during a prescribed fire to reduce the density of wooded areas, the amount of fuel that will burn will be reduced.

+ The harvest will help manage invasive exotic vegetation such as air potato vines and prepare the area for natural development of species that grow in the understory, or beneath the shade canopy of the flatwood pines.

+ By reducing tree density to the level of natural pine flatwoods, wildlife habitats will be improved and the remaining trees will have greater access to water, sunlight and nutrients to help them grow.

+ Weakened or beetle-infested trees will be removed as part of the harvest. Potentially hazardous trees near the paved, multi-use recreation trail at Lake Seminole Park will be removed.

The county has hired Natural Resources Planning Services, a private forestry consulting firm, to conduct the six-week project.

"It's just been allowed to grow up," said Joseph Gocsik, a consulting forester. "(The parks) has never been thinned in the past. This is the first step in returning that forest to a more healthy stage."

The trees are expected to bring approximately $20,000. The consulting company will get 15 percent of that as its commission.

Stager, the park's supervisor, said nesting trees will be spared. Also, steps will be taken to leave pines of all ages.

Many of the trees that will be cut were planted when the park opened in 1968. Some are healthy with green needles and full canopies. Others haven't fared too well and are struggling from disease and the recent drought, Stager said.

One of the park's most popular features is the 2-mile nature trail, which attracts about 300 people daily. Stager said he hopes to keep part of the trail open at all times, but there will be periods when the entire trail is closed.