BROOKSVILLE — Workers restoring habitat for gopher tortoises have used mechanical shredding, chemical treatment and burning at the Lake Townsen Preserve off Lake Lindsey Road in recent years. And the next part of their plan involves cutting timber on more than 200 acres.
But some area residents are stunned by what they see as harsh management practices and the fall of so many healthy hardwood trees. They raised questions with the Hernando County Commission during a presentation last month. They see thinning the forest as destruction rather than habitat improvement.
Land managers and environmental advocates said the work is needed to turn Lake Townsen back into the productive habitat it used to be. Specifically, it must become a suitable place for the county to relocate protected tortoises displaced by development projects.
Two weeks later, a larger group of concerned residents returned, and commissioners halted additional timber cutting and clearing until they better understand the status of the work.
For seven years, the county has been working to making Lake Townsen into a state-approved gopher tortoise relocation site. The completion date depends on when the tree canopy and undergrowth meet state benchmarks.
Gopher tortoises are listed as a threatened species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The burrows they dig are used by 350 other species, including frogs, snakes, mice and insects, making them a keystone species, according to the agency's gopher tortoise web page. Both the animals and their homes are protected, and the state requires developers to relocate gopher tortoises found on construction sites.
Hernando County was paying about $2,000 per animal to remove tortoises from county projects, with a private company capturing and taking the animals to an approved relocation site. In 2012, shortly after the county placed Lake Townsend into the Environmentally Sensitive Lands program, Commissioner Wayne Dukes suggested creating a gopher tortoise relocation site there and training county employees to do the relocation to save money.
He said last month that he was shocked the project wasn't finished.
"I just assumed the gopher hotel was already out there,'' Dukes said.
Brooksville resident Pat Miketinac said the county's work at Lake Townsen makes it look "like Hiroshima after the blast.'' The county should have located the project "where destruction of a forest was not necessary,'' he said.
Shirley Miketinac called it "a crime against nature ... and God.''
The property was supposed to be for public recreation, she told commissioners, and is unique among county parks because it draws equestrians to the trails. They won't come, she said, "if the shade canopy has been destroyed.''
The Lake Townsen property, near Nobleton and Istachatta in eastern Hernando County, stretches over 375 acres, with less than 40 acres developed. The site was donated to the county by the federal government for public use in 1974.
Dukes said that when he suggested homing tortoises there, he thought preparation involved cleaning out the underbrush, but had no idea how much work or time was required.
Michael Singer, the county's conservation lands specialist explained that the state has specific requirements, and the county has been working toward those over the past seven years. The site is classified as an upland conifer forest, so the county has worked to reestablish long leaf pine trees and the herbaceous undergrowth preferred by gopher tortoises.
Much of that work has been funded by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Singer said, but it takes time.
As for the concerns of neighbors sad to see the oak trees and other hardwood trees cut down, he said, "habitat preservation isn't always pretty in the beginning.''
Once the habitat restoration is done and the state has accepted the site for relocation, it should be able to house 744 more tortoises. Currently, 72 of the animals live on the site.
Eugene Kelly, who was chairman of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands committee when it was disbanded several years ago, said the county is doing the right thing by restoring Lake Townsend. It will recreate an area that will be welcoming to a variety of species, he said.
"This is like hitting the reset button'' on the property, Kelly said. "It's a terrific project.''
The Miketinacs returned to the April 23 commission meeting, along with members of the Nature Coast Back Country Horsemen, who didn't want to lose the shade from the equestrian trails there.
Commissioner John Allocco said he visited the park to see for himself.
"It's pretty barren. It's pretty ugly out there,'' he said.
Ron Pianta, the county's development services director, said it may be possible adjust the tree cutting to have less impact on trails. Altering the plan would mean moving fewer tortoises there, but it could alleviate the worries of some who enjoy the park.
Getting state officials to meet with interested residents would be key, Pianta said, and he will report back to the commission.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.