By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
VOLUSIA COUNTY - A plan to restore scrub habitat in one of the region's largest state-owned conservation areas has some residents upset out of fears it would forever change its nature trails for the worse.
After the Volusia County Council last month approved a scrub habitat restoration project at the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve, opposition emerged among Port Orange officials and users of the trails at the preserve as a result of over 84 acres of trees along the trails being "roller chopped" to clear the way for the restoration.
Following a recent County Council workshop, county leaders decided to pause efforts to restore scrub habitat - an endangered habitat characterized by low growth such as shrubs that attracts native species such as the gopher tortoise and the scrub jay - for at least a month while Port Orange, county and state officials work out a compromise plan that accommodates coexistence of the scrub habitat restoration and the recreational trails.
At that workshop, county leaders heard from about 40 people, mostly those who use the trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding, who asked for the trails to be left alone.
Just one of those 40 was longtime Port Orange resident Danielle Nietz, whose husband rides his bike at the preserve. She recalled walking the nature trails with the late Doris Leeper, a New Smyrna Beach artist and environmentalist for whom the preserve is named after.
Ms. Nietz felt roller chopping the trees along the trails went against Ms. Leeper's vision for the preserve, which includes more than 1,900 acres owned by the state.
"She (Ms. Leeper) loved the trails, and that's exactly what you tore down," she said. "She never saw (the preserve) as a scrub jay place. She saw it as a beautiful forest with raccoons and hawks and all kinds of wildlife. She never mentioned scrub jays, and this is the person we named the park after. She worked very hard for that."
County and state experts said scrub restoration is needed to protect native plants and animals. They also said restoration methods such as roller chopping and prescribed burns help rather than hurt the area by removing overgrowth.
Kelly McGee, the county's director of growth and resource management, said significantly overgrown scrublands, if left alone, could produce a "catastrophic" wildfire. Roller chopping the overgrowth results in a more conservative burn, and burning the scrubland releases seeds to help new scrub grow, she said.
County documents stated plans to roller chop overgrowth in two parcels totaling about 250 acres of the preserve at the end of Martin's Dairy Road. A modified plan Ms. McGee presented proposes a 25-foot buffer on each side of the nature trails and selective removal of trees from the buffer zone.
Plans to restore scrub habitat at Spruce Creek Preserve have been in the works as early as 1994, when the first local management plan for the project was developed. Last year, county and state leaders approved a land management plan that called to "restore the health of the various habitats on the preserve," while county leaders allowed the restoration to begin last month.
Port Orange leaders said they understood the need for scrub habitat restoration but asked to be more involved in working out a solution because of the concerns from citizens.
"Our citizens want to use this property," Councilman Dennis Kennedy said. "Our citizens want to protect this."
State representative Dorothy Hukill, a former Port Orange mayor, agreed.
"People are very concerned," she said. "They want to use these trails. They want to be included in the process. They feel they have been left out."
Port Orange City Manager Ken Parker said city staff plans to meet with county and state officials to discuss the scrub restoration project at Spruce Creek Preserve. City staff plans to work with a forester and a biologist for expert opinions in the discussions, he said.