IMPORTANT UPDATE Two weeks after I posted this blog, the Hernando County Commission voted to reinstate the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee that oversees this very important program. We are grateful for their turnaround and for the folks who stood up at that next commission meeting to state their case and educate the commissioners as to why the ESL is important to local tourism. With this reversal of their decision, we’ll be including Hernando County and its tourism resources in our upcoming books on the most scenic trails in Florida.
TEXT OF LETTER SENT TO THE COMMISSION ——————————–
I am leaving this letter online as an example of how to address conservation issues linked to tourism. Feel free to borrow the format as you deal with similar issues where you live.
Dear Hernando County Commissioners,
It was ironic the way our visit played out. Rain pelted us on the drive up I-75, so we almost sought shelter with your neighbor to the south, Pasco County. But we were on a mission to visit and photograph a trail in your county for our new book, so we decided to stay near Ridge Manor, instead. I was sitting in the hotel room, catching up on the week’s news, when I saw this article in the Tampa Bay Times.
Hernando commission disbands Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program
I was incredulous. Your program was the reason for our visit. You may be unaware of this, but the Florida Trail traverses your county. It’s one of eleven Congressionally-designated National Scenic Trails in America. My husband and I wrote the book on it. We were in your county to explore Cypress Lakes Preserve, one of eight Environmentally Sensitive Lands you’ve set aside for future generations. It provides a protected corridor for a portion of our National Scenic Trail.
We were here as travelers, spending money on a hotel room, food, and fuel. But more importantly, we were here as writers, with the intent of promoting a hike through Cypress Lakes Preserve to our rather substantial online audience and as a part of a new book. If it passed muster, of course.
Not all parts of the Florida Trail are as scenic as a National Scenic Trail should be. We chose Cypress Lakes Preserve because of its easy access from Interstate 75 and visitor services. The fact that it was part of the Enviromentally Sensitive Lands program meant there was a good chance we’d find a good reason to send visitors there.
And we did. Along the 1.6 mile trail (3.2 mile round-trip), we discovered patches of Paronychia rugelii, known commonly as Sand Squares. These are just one of several dozen wildflowers in the sandhills along the edge of the Cypress Lakes, not very common and certainly very showy.
There are dozens of ancient cypress rising from the swamps along this trail. They survived the wholesale stripping of timber from the floodplain of the Withlacoochee River, most likely due to their unusual shapes. One of the largest of the cypresses in the preserve is one of the largest cypresses, by volume, that we’ve ever encountered. Its base could blot out a garage. It rose so high into the canopy that we couldn’t see the top.
A well-constructed bridge spans the outflow of the Cypress Lakes into a deep sinkhole, which undoubtedly leads to the Withlacoochee River. We have to thank you for providing this bridge, which took money and effort to build.
Fortunately, there are volunteers with the Florida Trail Association who’ll continue to maintain the trail, keeping the footpath open for future visitors. The preserve could use a trailhead – right now it’s just a pulloff – but we guess that won’t be happening now.
In addition to Cypress Lakes Preserve, Hernando County has three small parks – Nobleton Wayside, Bayport, and Linda Pedersen/Jenkins Creek – in the Environmentally Sensitive Lands program. We’ve visited all three over the years. They pre-date the program, and no doubt will default to becoming county or local parks.
Our concern is your preserves. Especially Cypress Lakes Preserve, after this visit. We know of the others – Peck Sink, Fickett Hammock, Lake Townsen, and Chinsegut Hill – but haven’t seen them yet. After all, not all Environmentally Sensitive Lands are suitable for recreation. Sometimes they exist just to ensure a little corner of our world with something interesting on it is there for the next generation. To quote your ESL website, “Recreational uses are ancillary and will only be allowed when the resource will not be placed at risk by such use.” So, who will manage these preserves?
When Hernando County taxpayers agreed to the bond referendum in 1988, it was for 30 years of funding this program. So why did you ignore the will of the taxpayers and decide, without public input – without any notice to the public – to make a decision on a matter that would not be up for discussion for another three years? And more importantly, what’s your plan to manage these preserves, which are very different in character than a county park?
It’s sad that you’ve decided to stand out as the first Florida county to step away from conservation of your natural resources, following in the footsteps of our current state legislature in ignoring the will of the people. We may have voted in droves for Amendment 1, to protect more of Florida’s land for future generations, but our government seems to be all about the money. As my husband says, “trees don’t pay taxes.” Commissioner Jim Adkins was quoted by the media pointing out that it’s too much burden for 60% of the property owners to pay the bill for county services. It would be if the other 40% of the property in the county was using those services. But public lands don’t ask for wider roads or bigger schools.
As I said, the timing of our visit was ironic. Had we known about your decision before our arrival, we would have opted to spend our money in Dade City instead of Hernando County. As we craft our information for fellow travelers, we’ll be sure to tell them why they should, too.
Hernando commission disbands Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program (Tampa Bay Times)
Hernando County Commission meeting of July 28, where the vote occurred
Hernando County Environmentally Sensitive Lands
Preserves in Hernando County
Map of Cypress Lakes Preserve