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Mine becomes landmark's legacy

A sinkhole called Devil's Punch Bowl was once spectacular enough to be featured in tourist guides.

Its fossil-studded limestone walls plunged 70 feet from a wooded hillside about 3 miles northwest of Brooksville. Tall trees and "beautiful hammock ferns'' grew from its base, said Frasier Mountain, 83.

"Those trees were probably 200 or 300 years old.''

But the Punch Bowl was on land owned by Camp Concrete Rock Co., now Rinker Materials' Florida Crushed Stone mine.

Mountain's father, Rufus, the mining superintendent, ordered the rock around the Punch Bowl to be mined more than 60 years ago, Frasier said. Soon the bottom of the mining pit and the bottom of the sinkhole were one and the same.

"Back then you just got out a drag line and went to work where your land was,'' Mountain said. "Digging into a sinkhole in a hill in the middle of the hammock, there wouldn't be a wink, there wouldn't be a question.''

That is no longer true, of course.

On Dec. 13, Rinker will ask the County Commission to approve a change in the county's comprehensive plan to allow the company to mine sand or limestone from six scattered parcels of land covering a total of 500 acres. Before Rinker can begin mining, the comp plan amendment says, the company must survey the land for environmental and archaeological resources.

"There's no question about that; it's a very labor-intensive process,'' said Darryl Johnston, a Brooksville lawyer representing Rinker, an international mining company based in Australia.

But one thing hasn't changed, said Al Sevier, a longtime critic of mining companies. Mining rock destroys every feature of the landscape: grass, trees and topsoil.

"You know what you have left? A hole in the ground,'' Sevier said. "You can't even make pasture out of it.''

Those concerns led Barry Wharton, an environmental consultant in Tampa, to find out all he could about Devil's Punch Bowl in the 1980s, when he had been hired by the county to help write its first comprehensive plan.

"I was concerned about our lost legacy due to mining without even documenting what we were losing,'' Wharton said.

The Punch Bowl appeared on the first land survey of the county, conducted in 1846, as well as on old Gulf Oil road maps and in a 1939 travel guide published by the federally funded Florida Writer's Project.

The sinkhole, which covered about an acre, was along the road to the Lykes family's ranch - called Spring Hill - west of Brooksville, the guide said. "The conformation is that of a mammoth punch bowl, with steep, almost unscalable sides.''

Wharton said the Punch Bowl was "like a cousin to the Devil's Millhopper sinkhole near Gainesville, which is now a state park. It was surrounded by dense forest that the 1846 survey described it as "1st rate hammock.''

Mountain remembers the woods, but says the Punch Bowl's reputation as a tourist destination has been overstated.

The road that the travel guide describes was more like a dirt trail, and the dense woods around the sink were more popular with hunters than sightseers. His father used the Punch Bowl as a dump for trees the mine cleared nearby, but he initially avoided mining its walls because of worries that the land might be unstable enough to swallow the mining equipment.

That changed with the start of World War II, which created a heavy demand for Hernando's high-quality limestone, some of which was used to build runways at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa and what is now the Hernando County Airport, Frasier Mountain said.

Wharton said historic aerial photos suggest the Punch Bowl was actually mined in the 1950s. Either way, no trace of it remains, said Tom Mountain of Coastal Engineering Associates in Brooksville, who works as an environmental consultant for the Florida Crushed Stone cement plant.

"It's not really a sinkhole anymore,'' Mountain said. "It's at the bottom of a cooling pond.''

Nothing nearly as valuable as the Punch Bowl is on the property Rinker is currently asking to mine, said Jim King, a county planner. The six parcels are scattered around the more than 10,000 acres the company owns northwest of Brooksville. The largest parcel covers 380 acres on the western edge of the mine's property, near the Suncoast Parkway.

The most ecologically and historically valuable is a 35-acre parcel near the southeast corner of Lake Lindsey Road and Citrus Way. It is covered by tall pines, oaks and magnolia trees, and is near three caches of American Indian artifacts found by an archaeologist hired by the company for a previous survey. At each site, the archaeologist found about 10 spear points or other stone tools and found no reason for a more thorough study of the land.

Rinker will have to conduct a survey of the new 35-acre parcel for archaeological resources, said King, who specializes in comprehensive plan issues. But the county report on Rinker's request says the comprehensive plan contains few provisions for protecting trees on the property.

"Though mining will eliminate portions of the biologically important Big Hammock forest,'' the report said, "this parcel seems appropriate for mining uses.''

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

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