by Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
It appears the roller chopping of overgrowth at the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve to make way for scrub habitat will resume, but not before a trail is moved.
That's the consensus stakeholders of the 2,477-acre preserve reached after months of debate between county, state and municipal leaders and people who use the trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Scrub restoration became a major issue over the summer when county leaders allowed the roller chopping to move forward despite opposition from trail users.
County and state officials saw a need to restore scrub habitat, an endangered low-growth habitat that attracts native species, such as the scrub jay and the gopher tortoise, because trail users and city leaders from Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach wanted to find a balance between scrub restoration and recreational uses at the preserve.
A possible balance was achieved thanks to Port Orange Mayor Allen Green, who suggested leaving two interior trails along a 170-acre tract off Martin's Dairy Road in Port Orange untouched until a trail on the southernmost part of the preserve can be created, a proposal that drew support from stakeholders. The two trails, Scrub Jay Way and the 7/10 Trail, would be lost when the Martin's Dairy tract is sent to the chopping block.
He believed replacing the interior trails with a new trail along the southern end of the preserve past the area where the scrub restoration will occur was a "doable" alternative.
"This world is a better place when you leave it the way you found it," Mayor Green said.
Marianne Gengenbach, land management coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, described the mayor's proposal as "farther than where we were a couple of months ago" and indicated in an e-mail statement that state leaders support the idea.
Stakeholders also supported leaving existing trails on the edges of the preserve untouched.
Plans to restore scrub habitat at Spruce Creek Preserve have been in the works since 1994, when the first local management plan for the project was developed. Last year, county and state leaders "conditionally approved" a land management plan calling for scrub habitat restoration.
Volusia County leaders proceeded with roller chopping of an 84-acre tract of the preserve in July, a move that drew strong opposition from trail users and Port Orange officials. In response, the Volusia County Council paused scrub restoration efforts until a compromise could be reached.
Clay Henderson, a former county councilman who was instrumental in buying parts of the preserve, said he recently walked through the area that was roller chopped and observed more birds and wildlife "than I've seen in my lifetime." He reported seeing a short-tail hawk, deer and a Florida scrub jay on the property.
Steve Kintner, retired environmental management director for Volusia County and current conservation chair of the West Volusia Audubon Society, said the scrub restoration project must move forward because of the amount of scrub that has been lost. Ms. Gengenbach said about 85 percent of the state's scrub habitat has been lost.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Mr. Kintner said. "Scrub is beautiful."
But some feared scrub would be restored at the expense of recreational uses.
Suzanne Kosmas, a former congresswoman who now heads Friends of Spruce Creek Preserve, an organization dedicated to preservation and nature-based recreation at the preserve, said the trail system being affected in the scrub restoration project "doesn't pass the fairness test."
She believed there were other suitable sites on Spruce Creek Preserve where scrub restoration could occur, such as a 36-acre site east of Interstate 95 and north of Pioneer Trail known as the Stanaki property. But Ms. Gengenbach said alternative sites should be considered in addition to, not instead of, the Martin's Dairy tract.
Ms. Kosmas later said building a new trail along the southern boundary to replace the interior trails is the closest the stakeholders have come to a compromise.
"I believe we're on the right track to create a win-win situation," she said. "Ultimately I think we'll reach a consensus and, perhaps more importantly, create a situation in which (trail) users and other stakeholders will have meaningful input in the planning process going forward."
Reid Hughes, an environmentalist who helped facilitate the purchase of preserve lands back in the mid-1980s, agreed with Ms. Kosmas. Although he said he was happy to see progress made with the scrub restoration project, he felt some issues still needed to be addressed.
"We should not put any priority on prescribed burns and chopping," he said. "It negates recreation and I think there are plenty of alternative sites."
New Smyrna Beach Councilwoman Lynne Plaskett said the stakeholders involved in the process must act as "good stewards" of the preserve to maintain the vision of the woman it was named for, late artist and environmentalist Doris Leeper.
"When I first heard about this, I thought Doris Leeper would be turning over in her grave if she saw what was going on," Ms. Plaskett said.