A nearly 4,500-acre swath of environmentally sensitive land northeast of Ocala, Fla. – formerly containing an RV Park and later targeted by developers for a housing development – is now taking shape as a nature lover's retreat.
The land, once owned by Avatar Properties Inc. and slated for 14,000 homes, is now called the Indian Lake State Forest, according to ocala.com.
Three years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection paid the bulk of the land's $76.2 million price tag.
Work is being done, but the forest is open to the public.
Crews are building walking and riding trails, dirt roads to a fishing lake and clearings for nature lovers.
The Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry has been mending neglected fences, clearing paths and building fire lines.
The 4,471 acres along Baseline Road was once home to a recreational vehicle park and was neglected for many years, said Bill Holland of the Division of Forestry, Marion County.
"Right now, the trails are all overgrown because they weren't taken care of," he said.
So for the past several months, Holland said Forestry workers have been clearing dirt roads, fixing fences and posting signs.
Forestry workers have also built a fence and cleared brush and debris from around a Confederate cemetery.
Originally, the land purchase was a financial partnership among DEP, the not-for-profit Nature Conservancy and Marion County.
The land has at least 13 sinkholes and is a recharge area for Silver Springs, one of the largest first-magnitude springs in the country.
Silver Springs puts out about 550 million gallons of water per day into the Silver River.
The land's marshes and swamps are habitat for rare wildlife species, including the Florida black bear, bald eagle and red-cockaded woodpecker, according to the DEP.
Holland plans to control burn about 1,000 acres of the land to control underbrush growth against future fires.
But bigger projects on the property, such as a gravel parking lot for boaters, will have to wait until Holland hears from Tallahassee administrators. He needs at least $20,000 for building supplies. The labor will come from Division of Forestry.
Holland said he didn't get any money this year for construction at the Indian Lake State Forest land, but took the funds from other accounts that allowed sharing of the money.
Meanwhile, Holland wants visitors to first get permits at his office, 2735 E. Silver Springs Blvd., before entering the park.
That's because vandals, many driving all-terrain vehicles, damaged some of the structures at the forest's old RV park, damaged a wildlife habitat, and have vandalized some of the Confederate cemetery and its 25 graves.
Holland said a law enforcement officer has been assigned to patrol the park, and the permit helps the Forestry Division keep up with who is in the forest.
Former Marion County teacher and current environmentalist Guy Marwick was a member of the Silver River Basin Working Group, a state organization that first recommended FDEP buy the former Avatar property.
In 2002, Marwick telephoned Avatar executives asking how much they wanted for their property, which the company purchased about 40 years before. For the next four years, the state, Marwick and Avatar debated the price.
Until after the purchase was finalized in 2006, Marwick said he was always afraid the deal would fall through.
"I always had a feeling of dread knowing we could lose it all. It was almost like an instant headache – the restriction of the capillaries. But now, wow," he said.
County Commission Chairman Jim Payton admits if the land had been developed, it would have created a hefty tax base for the county.
"But government is not necessarily in the business of building a tax base," Payton said after the purchase was announced. "It's not all about the money. It's about preserving our way of life. It's about preserving some heritage for our children and our grandchildren."