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Harvest will thin preserve's flatwoods

To the untrained eye, the thick stands of pine trees in the Brooker Creek Preserve and Lake Seminole Park appear to be beautiful refuges from the urban jungle of Pinellas County.

But to park and preserve managers, decades of uncontrolled growth now mean that the flatwoods need some attention. At Brooker Creek, one corner of the 8,500-acre nature preserve is being thinned out. At Lake Seminole Park, a similar project coming up this spring is more of a makeover. A major makeover.

The Pinellas County Commission last month approved a timber sales contract with Bodaca Timber for the first-ever tree harvest in the Brooker Creek Preserve. That project is about two weeks along and is expected to be completed within the next six weeks.

Foresters are working in the southeastern corner of the preserve between the Florida Power corridor and the Hillsborough County line. The area is about a half-mile long and a little less than a quarter-mile wide. It backs up to the Nine Eagles subdivision, just over the county line in Hillsborough. Few homes overlook the part of the preserve where work is taking place.

Through the years, the area has gotten more and more overgrown with slash pine trees, often at the expense of vegetation below.

"They're extremely dense _ way more than what you would want in a well-managed pine forest," said Craig Huegel, the preserve manager and administrator of Pinellas County's division of environmental lands. "It's pretty to look at, but it's biologically not good. From a fire standpoint, it's very dangerous because of the density."

The operation is aimed at reducing the number of pine trees in the area to about 300 to 400 per acre. Rather than letting foresters cut everything, county officials went in ahead of time, fenced off wetlands and marked the trees they wanted cut.

That "saved the biggest and the best trees," Huegel said. "This isn't an attempt to maximize our profit."

County officials expect to make about $80,000 from the sale of the Brooker Creek timber. Depending on the results, officials might look at a couple of other places in the preserve that need to be thinned out; however, they do not expect the practice to be widespread.

"It's not our intent . . . to start turning the preserve into a forestry operation," Huegel said.

At Lake Seminole Park, workers will begin in early May to thin out a 100-acre area 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," said Fred Stager, supervisor of the 250-acre park.

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, multiuse 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.

_ Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.