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Refuge Week seeks to enlighten visitors

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

The sunlight strained at the edges between clusters of bromeliad-laden tupelo trees, water oaks and cabbage palms.  

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Thin shafts of light breaking through the canopy revealed flitting birds and clouds of mosquitoes hovering over black water dotted with the heart-shaped leaves of cow lilies.

Snakes, in search of prey, slithered in and out of the murk below, and fiddler crabs scurried over rocks and tiny islands of gnarled tree roots.

“ When Bartram (William) came through here, he must have seen…the forest primeval,” Joan Stephens, a volunteer for the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, said during a guided tour of the area on Oct. 16.

The tour was in honor of National Wildlife Refuge Week—Oct. 11 through 17.

Stephens said the event is about creating an awareness of the refuges, something she has been doing since 2001 through her guided tours of the refuge, which is located in northwest Levy County.

“ People need to get out in the wild and just really experience nature,” she said.  “ It’s calming, and it’s good to realize that life is not running around from job to job.”

But Stephens said refuges exist primarily for wildlife, not people.

They provide a safe haven for species of plants and animals that are rare, on the decline or are endangered, she said.

For example, she said, the refuge, which is about 50,000 acres, happens to be home to the endangered salt marsh vole.

“There are only one or two other places where you see it,” she said.

The area is also home to alligators, otters, deer, several species of bat and over 250 types of birds—some of which are protected or on the decline.

Furthermore, Stephens said, the area is important because of its ability to filter pollution and contaminants out of the Suwannee River.

Pam Darty, a ranger at the refuge, said the area is also important because of the history it contains.

Darty said several groups of Native American peoples were known to occupy the area, yet little is known about them other than the fact that a few artifacts have been found.

“They really haven’t done any archeological digs; not a lot known,” she explained.

But Darty said it’s because of the refuge that many of the artifacts waiting to be unearthed have not already been plundered or damaged by development.

And she said the University of Florida is gearing up to do a five-year archeological study of the area, which will definitely contribute toward a better understanding of area’s history.

Darty said the refuge, which was established in 1979, also has its share of problems and challenges.

“We have a big problem with poachers around here,” she said.  “We have dead gators all the time.  They just take the tail, leave the gator.”  And she said poachers come in to remove the cabbage from the tops of cabbage palms, an act that kills the tree.

She said refuge officials are also concerned about a proposed state-owned campsite that would bring campers farther into the refuge.

She said there are already two campsites located on the outer edges of the refuge, but she fears the new camp will only encourage illicit behavior through easier access.

Exotic animals, such as ferel pigs, are also a problem, not to mention rising sea levels.

Darty said rising sea levels are already beginning to kill palm trees on the edge of Cedar Key’s islands.

“Those little salt marsh voles, what are they gonna’ do?  It’s gonna’ be a problem for several species.”