by LISA MACNEIL
Hernando Sun Reporter
On Thursday, May 2, 2019, approximately 20 residents met with Conservation Lands Specialist Michael Singer and Planning Director Ron Pianta under a pavilion at Lake Townsend park to discuss their concerns over restoration efforts. A preliminary public meeting, interested parties submitted written suggestions and voiced concerns over recent prescribed burns and clearing maneuvers that have resulted in the removal hardwood trees, commonly known as ‘oak’ and others.
No decisions were made during this meeting, however comments and proposals were invited to be written. Community Activists Pat and Shirley Miketinac organized a 10-part paper to offer suggestions on how the restoration project should proceed.
According to several frequent visitors of Lake Townsend, pines do not provide the overhead canopy and resulting shade that the oaks and other hardwoods provide. The shade from the tree canopy is what draws equestrians to Lake Townsend.
President of Nature Coast Back Country Horsemen, Becky Card Swerdloff spoke of the unique features of the equestrian trail, notably, the lack of insects when compared to other horse-friendly venues in the area.
The other residents of Lake Townsend are the gopher tortoises, relocated there by specialists when found on county property that is to be improved, or used for roadways or utilities projects. The exact number of relocated tortoises is unknown.
While researching the issue, Pat and Shirley Miketinac found,
“A 2012 survey of the native population of tortoises at Lake Townsen showed about 196 burrows, all of which are protected by law, occupied or unoccupied. About 70 burrows are located on the 100 acres recently “restored”. On August 3, 2012, Jim King, then Conservation Land Specialist for Hernando County, stated in a letter to his department:
“‘The spatial distribution of burrows indicates that any timber harvest conducted to remove invasive sand pines and oaks as part of habitat restoration would be likely to adversely affect a considerable portion of the existing gopher tortoise population.’”
The Miketinacs voiced much concern of the gopher tortoises present on the recently “restored” Lake Townsend property stating,
“On April 23rd, at a BOCC meeting, we showed pictures of collapsed burrows on this 100 acre tract with no sign of self-excavation yet by the gopher tortoises. No one else seems to be outraged or concerned about this practice. We continued to research, only to find that this is a common practice by state and national forestry and fish and wildlife workers. The assumption or hope is that the gopher tortoises will dig themselves out. Studies show that many indeed do, but it can take months before they manage. Some are maimed or killed in the process and never make it to the surface again. Researchers have actually crushed burrows on purpose to prove this. This practice is unacceptable inhumane treatment, when some wooden stakes, plastic ribbon, a little time and patience could have marked the recommended 50 foot diameter circle required by law of the rest of us.
“Even after a gopher tortoise manages to dig itself out of a collapsed burrow, he seldom returns to it. Understandable. And to add insult to injury, this Lake Townsen mechanical shredding was done during breeding season and at the beginning of nesting season (May through mid-June). What is left of the native population is probably in disarray. Hernando County should follow its own Environmentally Sensitive Lands ordinance (2003-18) which supposedly protects all plants and animals.”
Most of the comments at the gathering on Thursday asked that the current work to take down any more trees be stopped. One proposal was signed by 10 residents, and suggested two phases for Lake Townsen(d) going forward; “Phase I: Keep the middle of open park as-is and what has been removed. No one rides (horses) in the middle (section). Stop here - keep perimeters as-is. Keep oak trees within 50 feet of road. Locate gopher tortoises in the middle of the open area and what has recently been destroyed. Stop any more tree removal. Phase II: Find another … location.”
At least one person at the meeting disagreed, offering, “Fire is a natural way of preserving natural habitat. Leave the canopy along the perimeter for trails.”
The matter is expected to be discussed at the May 14, 2019 Board of County Commissioners regular meeting.