Trouble on the trail?


Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 11:47 p.m.

A new trail and parking lot are meant to improve access to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, but some park enthusiasts say the project and a gate recently built at the park's northern end will have the opposite effect.

Facts

La Chua

A new parking lot for visitors. An electronic gate to prevent visitors from accessing the Florida Park services headquarters. An electronic gate to prevent visitors from accessing the Florida Park services headquarters. An electronic gate to prevent visitors from accessing the Florida Park services headquarters. A trail extension which runs about 1,000 feet, passing under an old railroad trestle before linking with the original La Chua Trail near the sink. A boardwalk will be built in the next eight to 10 months unless funding is cut.

The lot and trail, which opened over the Labor Day weekend, provide a new entry point to the popular La Chua Trail. Last week, an electronic gate was built to prevent visitors from reaching the old entry point near the Florida Park Service's District 2 headquarters.

Park officials say the gate will prevent cars from crowding the headquarters' parking area and other potential problems. They say the new trail is part of an effort to improve handicapped accessibility, which includes a plan to build a boardwalk over La Chua Trail.

But some park enthusiasts say the gate pushes visitors farther from the trail, blocks access to historic structures and conflicts with the park service's mission to serve the public.

George Edwards, president of Friends of Paynes Prairie, proposes the district instead move its offices.

"There's no justification for staying where they are, which denies the public access to cultural and historic resources," he said.

Paynes Prairie is a sprawling 21,000-acre preserve with entrances at its north and south ends. The north entrance leads to structures that were part of Camp Ranch, the site where ranching activities were based before the property was bought by the state in 1970.

The structures have since been converted to other uses. A stone bunkhouse was used as an interpretive center before the flooring became rotted, while a barn houses Gainesville police horses. Another building holds the park service's District 2 headquarters, which houses staff who oversee 39 parks in the 19-county district.

The building is near the La Chua Trail, a hike that guides visitors past Alachua Sink and is known as a place to view alligators and birds. Visitors were previously allowed to park next to district headquarters and hike down a nearby hill to reach the trail.

But access was limited in years past because a gate at the park entrance on Camp Ranch Road was locked during weekends.

The park service last year opened the gate on weekends for the first time to allow more visitors, then reversed course a few weeks later by closing the trail to the public. Park officials gave the reason at the time as safety concerns about hikers and alligators. Park officials were also concerned about the overabundance of cars being parked at district headquarters, said Mark Smith, district spokesman.

"People started discovering this place," he said.

The park's 2002 management plan included the idea of building a new trail and parking lot northwest of headquarters. Smith said the service decided the time was right to pursue the project, at a slightly different location farther from headquarters, using $21,200 from the district budget

The trail runs about 1,000 feet, passing under an old railroad trestle before linking with La Chua Trail near the sink.

"We believe Alachua Sink, and the significant wildlife viewing that can be done there, is worth the extra walk," said David Jowers, park manager.

In addition, a gate is being constructed on the entrance road between the parking lot and district headquarters. The gate, which costs $17,500, will be equipped with an electronic keypad to limit access to park and district staff.

Smith said the gate will prevent vandalism from occurring on weekends when staff is away. The gate will also prevent cars from hitting bicyclists on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, he said, which crosses the entrance road just past the gate.

Janet Powell, a volunteer who guides a weekly walk on the prairie, questioned why the money wasn't used to fix damaged paths that limit handicapped access on the park's south end.

The gate sends the message that the public is unwelcome, she said. She said her walk will no longer be able to feature the ranch's historic structures, which she views as an integral part of teaching local history.

"People don't have access to it so they won't learn about it," she said.

Jowers said the hard-packed limestone trail improves access for the handicapped and could eventually be paved. In addition, he said a boardwalk is planned over La Chua Trail that will allow more access, provide a route even when the prairie is flooded, and create a safe distance from gators.

The boardwalk will be built in the next eight to 10 months unless funding is cut, he said. In addition, he said, Gainesville Police are scheduled to move out of the horse barn in September and the structure could be converted to use as an interpretive center.

Edwards said the district offices would provide a much better place for such a center. He said the district's presence there prevents the use of the historic buildings to house exhibits on local history, the hydrologic importance of Alachua Sink and other significant aspects of the prairie.

"A little bit of time and a little bit of money and it could become a magical place," he said.

He supports moving the district into a new office and even has a possible location: the Florida Division of Forestry center on NE 23rd Avenue in Gainesville.

The division is moving out of the center, he said, so under state law the building would be available to the park service at no cost. He said Friends of Paynes Prairie has even offered to pay moving expenses.

"The District 2 offices could be anywhere there's an office," he said.

Smith said the idea was considered by district officials but ultimately rejected. Even if costs were reduced, he said, the district is trying to avoid unneeded expenses at a time of tight budgets.

He said the district has already made a significant effort to accommodate visitors with the lot and trail.

"We really have gone above and beyond" he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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