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Funding could push park into foreground

The park has nearly 3,500 acres of verdant marshlands with patches of treed uplands and sandy flats _ but only a half-mile walking trail along the eastern fringe of the property.

It has a web of creeks and lakes, including its namesake salt spring that runs 320 feet deep _ but not so much as a canoe launch.

Three years after getting a couple of picnic tables and an information kiosk, the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park remains the county's largest untapped treasure. The salty Gulf of Mexico laps at a scrubby shoreline no one can access except by boat. Farther inland, Wilson's plovers nest in white sands no one can reach. Otters, foxes, bobcats and eagles live beyond a nearly impenetrable thicket of longleaf pines and sabal palms.

"It's right here in everybody's back yard," said park manager Toby Brewer, standing in the park's pint-sized parking lot off Scenic Drive, behind the Hollywood 18 movie complex. "People just can't really get to it."

Parks officials have plans for miles of walking paths and aquatic trails and a larger entrance at the south end of the park, not far from the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Ridge Road. They even have permits to build a canoe launch with a larger picnic area and some no-frills campsites, Brewer said.

They just need the funding to bring those plans to life.

"All of the design for the recreational facilities is in place," said Leigh Ann Asklar, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which includes the state park system. "As soon as we get the funding that's needed, we can check off a project."

How much would it cost? That part remains unclear.

"We can't speculate as to what the construction will cost," Asklar said. The more likely scenario, she said, is to find out how many of the park's projects can be done once money is alloted.

DEP makes recommendations each year on which parks should get funding. Legislators also can push for certain projects. State Sen. Mike Fasano said Pasco's first state park should be a natural for more dollars.

"I would be surprised if this was not in the governor's budget to begin with, knowing that this is an ongoing new park that needs the continuing funding to make it a success," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Ongoing projects rank higher in the pecking order for state funding than new initiatives, and the state already has invested millions of dollars to acquire the Werner-Boyce tracts, named for two of the original owners.

The state also has spent about $900,000 on the existing amenities _ the half-mile trail, a few picnic tables, the kiosk and the gravel parking lot _ and the designs for the remaining improvements.

But additional funding is never guaranteed. Florida has 158 state parks competing for a limited pot of dollars, and the 100 or so parks damaged by this year's vicious hurricane season could get priority in the next budget.

(The damage at Werner-Boyce was limited to the self-composting toilet, which was pushed up by Frances' floodwaters.)

"The department allocates the funding based on the needs of Florida," Asklar said. "With the hurricane activity, we will be reallocating funds based on the need of the state."

It never hurts to have friends in the quest for dollars. So the park manager and the Salt Springs Alliance, a group of citizens promoting the park, have invited a slew of community leaders to a "sneak peek" event Oct. 23 to share the park's hidden treasures.

The event is open only to those who received an invitation. Tours will be provided via airboat, kayak, pontoon boat and truck.

"We're bringing awareness to the park," park manager Brewer said. "That might help us with funding."

Brewer estimates about 400 people visit the park each week to take a lap or two around the walking trail. But he said most people have no idea there's an expanse of old Florida behind the corridor of neon-lit strip malls, restaurants and car dealerships.

"We haven't promoted a whole lot," Brewer said. "Until we get an actual entrance, it's kind of hard to."

"Most people drive up and down U.S. 19," he said, "and never even know it's here."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hallsptimes.com.

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