Meeting the People that Manage the Withlacoochee Forest State Park
Article & Photography by ALICE MARY HERDEN
Brooksville, Fla.-- The Withlacoochee Forestry Center has many positions. One facet of any job is the ability to rely on each other. Gerri Velazquez, Facility Maintenance Administrator, and Cherie Plourde, Road Crew Staff, are great examples.
For the past couple of months, changes have occurred at different locations within the Withlacoochee State Forest, managed by the Florida Forest Service (FFS). These changes have provided a pleasant and welcoming surprise to visitors, horseback riders, and campers, with improved roads and greater accessibility to the forest.
Velazquez is responsible for directing the planning and the implementation of maintenance and Fixed Capital Outlay projects.
"I am the facility maintenance administrator for Withlacoochee, and that encompasses five counties. Lake, Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco," Velazquez said. "I am responsible for all facilities, maintenance shops, mechanic shops with 500 pieces of rolling stock throughout the district, telecommunication specialists, and property inventory specialists."
As Velazquez's job is non-stop, she deals with multiple contractors, repair schedules, and occasionally coordinates someone from the road crew to help retrieve a vehicle stuck in the forest.
"If I can't multitask, I will never be able to survive in this job," Velazquez said.
Silver Lake Campground is starting to see new changes, and the first noticeable change is the new dump station and a paved road into the campground. "This was actually the second project we did last year," Velazquez said.
There are a couple of places, like Richloam and Smith Prairie, where huge mounds of limestone piles have been dumped. Some of those mounds top over 15 feet in height. That limestone is being used to restore the current roads.
At the Smith Prairie Tract off of Croom Road, the FFS added a horse lot to the parking area and conducted road work on the south side of Forest Road 7. In Richloam WMA, the North Grade Road through Center Grade Road has also been reconditioned with limestone.
"That's one of the reasons why we were redoing that road (Center Grade Road), so people can get through there," said Cherie Plourde. "We have been doing the main trails, so people can get through without getting stuck."
Plourde works on the road crew, and you will most likely see her behind the wheel of a dump truck or bulldozer. She not only drives road maintenance vehicles, but she repairs them as well.
"I'm always the girl in the big truck," Plourde said. "I love the woods. I love the equipment. I love that there's always something different."
Gerri Velazquez ensures all the necessary maintenance contracts and paperwork are intact before any road work is conducted. Once that is a go, it's time for Cherie Plourde and the team to get the process started.
"Cherie is probably one of the best I have on the road crew. She does keep up on the maintenance of our vehicles and keep them on the road for us so we can continue to work on the road in the forest. We are very lucky to have her with us," Velazquez said.
These two ladies, along with all those that work in forestry, sincerely and respectfully work for the forest. Many citizens would not be able to enjoy all the recreational opportunities the Withlacoochee State Forest has to offer if it wasn't for their commitment, communication, and dedication.
"I enjoy my job. This is a great family to have. This truly is a big happy family, and I couldn't ask a bunch of nicer people to work with," Velazquez said.
To add a personal note to this article:
When I visited Richloam, the road crew had been scraping, dumping, and smoothing the limestone. I usually have a route that I follow, and I decided to take a detour off my routine and take another road. I was getting nervous and not sure where this road was taking me.
The road was rough and I was unsure if my little car would make it through. I happily came across an FFS employee, and he assured me that I was going the right way. As the road curved, suddenly, I was faced with the road crew.
Honestly, I felt so bad for the driver that had to back up this colossal dump truck so I could pass. As I drove by looking up at the driver, deeply apologizing for the inconvenience I caused, the driver smiled and said... "Oh, don't worry about it, it happens all the time." I smiled and drove away.
That dump truck driver was Cherie Plourde.