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  1. Hernando

More trees, fewer tortoises: Tree clearing to end at Lake Townsen after community protests and compromise

Hernando County is working to create a gopher tortoise relocation site at Lake Townsen Preserve. The work has required removing vegetation and cutting trees which has some wondering if this is really an ecological benefit. Courtesy Hernando County
Published May 21

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners heard the concerns of horse enthusiasts and area residents about the tree clearing at Lake Townsen Preserve and have decided to stop the planned expansion of their work.

Commissioners voted unanimously last week to prepare areas already cleared to become homes for protected gopher tortoises, but agreed not to take down any more trees.

In addition, the county will consider replacing the oaks and other shade trees that lined some of the park's walking and bridle trails before the tree clearing began years ago.

Seven years ago, Commissioner Wayne Dukes suggested that Lake Townsen could provide a future home for gopher tortoises that were living in the way of the county's construction projects. Because the animals are protected, developers must follow a protocol to remove them and place them in an appropriate new habitat. Each removal costs about $2,000, if an outside company does the relocation.

The Lake Townsen project was designed to save the county money.

At first, county officials thought the project involved only clearing some brush. But in the years since, gopher tortoise site preparation grew to include cutting, shredding, chemical treatment and burning of trees to re-create the long-leaf pine habitat and attractive herbaceous ground cover preferred by the tortoises and required by the state.

The Lake Townsen Preserve, 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.

Earlier this year, the county staff updated commissioners on the project, sparking community outcry.

The clearing has been likened to a "massacre" or a nuclear blast by unhappy residents. But county staffers and other biologists have said that returning the property to tortoise-friendly habitat is a lengthy process that never looks good in the beginning.

As the county was preparing to expand the logging and clearing, residents and equestrians who use the trails at Lake Townsen came to the commission on April 23 in protest. Some blasted commissioners for destroying the hardwood forest, while others questioned why horse enthusiasts would want to use unshaded trails. Commissioners delayed further work until they could meet to talk about options.

The compromise plan included finishing areas already cleared, but stopping there, county development services director Ron Pianta told commissioners.

The county had hoped to house as many as 744 tortoises on the larger cleared site, but will have to shrink that number, officials said. Currently 72 tortoises live on the preserve.

Dukes suggested replanting trees that could someday shade the bridle paths again, which brought applause from community members in the audience.

Commissioner John Allocco agreed, saying that there also should be a future commitment to protect other areas used by equestrian enthusiasts.

If the tree cutters had left the canopy within 30 feet of the trails, "a lot of the concerns could have been avoided,'' Allocco said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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