DeWitt: Compromise on Weekiwachee Preserve honor would make activist happy

Published Dec. 5, 2012

There's been an admirable effort to rename the Weekiwachee Preserve after an admirable human being, Arline Erdrich.

Erdrich, a nationally known artist from Aripeka who died last year, was better known locally as a groundbreaking environmental activist. When she showed up on the scene 20 years ago, there had never been anyone quite like her in Hernando County.

She was tenacious. She was skilled at connecting landowners who might be willing to sell with public agencies that might have the resources to buy. She not only introduced the Hernando County Commission to what were then fairly exotic concepts — wildlife corridors and such — but got them fired up about these ideas.

Of course, it took more than activism to set aside a nearly solid strip of natural coastal land between southern Citrus and northern Pasco counties, including the 11,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve.

It took money, mostly from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which bought the first part of the preserve in 1994.

But that money wouldn't have been available without political support, and that support wouldn't have existed if not for agitators (I mean that in a good way) such as Erdrich.

For that, she ought to be considered "a folk hero," said Beverly Coe, an old friend of Erdrich's and a longtime member of the organization Erdrich founded, the Gulf Coast Conservancy.

Coe brought up the idea of renaming the preserve at Erdrich's funeral, she said, "and the whole place went wild."

So, she started making phone calls and sending emails, and last month she sat down with land managers at Swiftmud.

By then, Coe said Erdrich didn't need sole billing. She could share it with the river on the preserve's northern border, the Weeki Wachee. Her proposed name: the Weekiwachee-Arline Erdrich Preserve.

The district didn't care for the idea and came up with a different one: Put Erdrich's name on the nearby Springs Coast Environmental Education Center and erect a plaque in the preserve explaining Erdrich's contributions.

The County Commission, on the other hand, didn't like that idea, or at least said it didn't, proclaiming at a meeting last month that it was on Coe's side. Two days later, though, on Nov. 15, commission Chairman Wayne Dukes sent a letter to Swiftmud saying the commission was okay with the district's suggestion.

Coe said this week that she is, too.

So — though the School Board, which runs the education center, will presumably have some say — it appears as though the entire matter is heading for a compromise. Which is probably for the best.

Names may not mean all that much. And it's hard not to see the irony in two public agencies that have proven lately that they don't care much for acquiring natural land now seeking to honor an advocate of it.

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But names do show what we think is valuable. And if Erdrich had one message, it was that we should respect the value of natural land, even the mine-pocked scrub that covers most of the preserve.

I can't speak for her, of course. But I suspect she'd agree that the Weeki Wachee River deserves to have its name on the preserve more than one person, no matter how admirable.