By Erika Webb
If you wanted togetherness on Valentine's Day, all you had to do was show up at Clark Bay Conservation Area on Old Daytona Road in DeLand at 10 a.m.
The South's answer to a horse and buggy ride through Central Park, the adventure involved a slightly less romantic Volusia County truck and a canopied trailer with seats for the nearly 25 people aboard that chilly, cloudless, bluebird-sky day.
But the experience was worth way more than the price of admission, which is free.
Bright, emerald green pine needles stretched heavenward, seemingly as happy as everyone else to see the bright sun and the first sprouts of spring.
Volusia Naturalist Bonnie Cary has an enviable job on days like this one.
The soggy Saturday before when she conducted three packed eco-buggy tours at Lyonia's Scrub Jay Festival, maybe hers was a less desirable position.
The county's Conservation Lands Outreach Programs offer residents opportunities to experience natural Florida and conservation land management, outdoor programs conducted by staff and guest instructors include the eco-buggy tours, guided hikes, bike-abouts and paddles, according to the website.
Program Manager Randall Sleister said the County's lone eco-buggy gets a lot of use.
"We had the buggy built in 2004 or 2005 and we've been using it ever since," Mr. Sleister said. "People enjoy it. Almost every tour I've participated in has been nearly full."
"It's a great way to get people farther into the woods," he said, "and people with mobility issues can participate, too."
The tours don't run on a regular schedule, but there are rides four times a month at one or more of the conservation lands:
Longleaf Pine Preserve, west of New Smyrna Beach
Clark Bay Conservation Area
Lake George Wildlife Management Area in Seville
On Feb. 25, Volusia Land Management foresters discussed the goals of a sandhill restoration project.
And, also west of New Smyrna Beach, Deep Creek Preserve, 8,000 acres of natural and agricultural features.
A cattle and silviculture ranch was purchased with funds from Volusia Forever and Volusia County Water and Utilities in 2010. The acquisition was a key component toward the goal of acquiring a connected wildlife greenway through the Volusia Conservation Corridor, according to the county's website.
On Feb. 14, Ms. Cary started out by explaining some changes in the liability-release form/sign-in sheet process that she said will streamline pre-tour chores.
Many of the participants were regulars who knew each other and Ms. Cary well. They good-naturedly groused about the paperwork, anxious to get on with the fun part.
She was just relieved the tour wasn't overbooked.
"I will always find a way to get you on," Ms. Cary promised. "If I have to strap you to the roof I will get you on."
Along for the ride were Crystal Morris, a St. Johns River Water Management District Land Manager, and Doug Weaver, retired Volusia Land Acquisition Management Director.
Through the Volusia Forever program Mr. Weaver worked, with agency partners and sellers to facilitate more than 35,000 acres of land acquisitions, including Clark Bay.
Clark Bay and state-owned Tiger Bay are connected on the map, he explained, but there is no navigability between them by vehicle.
Volusia Forever was created in 2000 when Volusia citizens voted to tax themselves .2 mills over 20 years to protect the county's natural biodiversity.
"If you're in Nebraska you really don't need this program," Mr. Weaver said. "If you grew up here, you don't have to be chairman of the Sierra Club to figure out we lost a little something."
An 11,000- to 12,000-acre easement along the northern portion of the conservation area was acquired from Seattle-based Plum Creek, one of the largest and geographically diverse landowners in the nation.
"We don't have the money to manage it," Mr. Weaver said. "You go out once a year and make sure they haven't built any condos."
Management of Clark Bay is a cooperative effort led by the SJRWMD and aided by Volusia Land Management, Florida Forest Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Ms. Morris later explained that with across the board budget cuts, the agencies agreed to team up and pool their resources in order to do more to manage the land.
"Large scale land management is very expensive," Mr. Weaver said. "Yeah, we've made a buck off of these trees, but it's $150,000 for a dozer and you have to get the property back to a more natural state."
So the agency partners conduct prescribed burns when the weather conditions are right.
The nearby DeLand Airport and a neighborhood abutting Clark Bay to the west are primary considerations when it comes time to burn.
"You have to have a southwest wind," Ms. Morris said.
That ensures a northeast fire-spread deeper into the conservation area and away from neighboring houses.
As the covered wagon jounced along Ms. Cary pointed out the good places to stop and look around.
One area featured three pine species -- the slash pine, sand pine and longleaf pine -- cohabitating verdantly.
"You don't get to see this very often, they're usually way up the tree," she said. "These are the male cones and they're purple."
"Cause it's so cold," one tour-goer replied.
"The female cones are up there somewhere," Ms. Cary said pointing skyward.
"Unattainable," the same tour-goer joked.
Ms. Morris explained the sand pine is a unique tree, susceptible to fire while depending on it to open the cones for distribution.
The trees live to be about 80 years old and can reach 24 to 25 inches in diameter, she said.
A Tiger Swallowtail fluttering by gave another comedian in the group his chance:
"He's in the wrong area. He should be in Tiger Bay."
Another stop gave Ms. Cary an opportunity to play with her "new toys."
Recent rains left pools of water standing along the cleared path, more than usual.
Several juvenile Ibis loitered ahead.
Ms. Cary took out a purple bucket with a plexi-glass bottom and a "viewer" made of PVC, foam and plexi-glass. "If you guys want to make money, make educational stuff," she said.
The bucket was $40 and the PVC underwater scope was more than $50.
Inching her way down the incline to get closer to the gulley, she maneuvered her visual aids carefully. The cold morning didn't yield any interesting life forms but the viewing devices will be used again.
Farther to the east the pines gave way to an open prairie where Ms. Cary determined, "Spring's a comin'."
She pulled sprigs of shiny blue berries, which, she said, are a gopher tortoise favorite.
"If you like blueberries, you'd probably like them," she said.
Digging deeper into the dampness, she pulled out a Sundew, a carnivorous plant. Since the lethally pretty pink flowers attract and digest bugs for extra nutrients, like nitrogen, the plant can grow and survive longer in areas where others won't -- in nutrient-depleted soils or peat bogs.
Pointing ahead, outside of this day's tour boundaries, Ms. Cary said there is "really pretty" blue-eyed grass.
Next stop, another grassy flooded area which Ms. Cary said is an important habitat for frogs, dragonflies and damselflies. The backdrop of pines appeared to be doing well in the water, but they won't for long, she said.
But, as usual, nature has it covered.
"If they die they'll produce snags for other habitats for other organisms like woodpeckers and bugs," Ms. Cary said, pointing to a tussock island on which a small fortunate tree stayed dry.
Almost back at the starting point, she finally found what she was looking for -- deer tongue, also known as trout lily. The herbaceous flowering plant has oblong leaves which look exactly like a deer's tongue, and smell like vanilla.
Throughout the tour, Ms. Morris explained when certain groups of pines were planted, when and how the prescribed burns occur and how both Volusia County and the SJRWMD are able to profit from the sale of the timber, adding to their budget and general fund, respectively.
Volusia's eco-buggy was inspired by one that Volusia outdoor program staff members saw while visiting Silver River State Park in 2001.
"We saw a buggy where they took the kids out and thought 'wow, that's pretty neat,'" Mr. Sleister said.
And it really is.