By Terri Langford As published in the Dixie County Times on Thursday, March 30, 2017.
Last week, residents gathered for a meeting at the Suwannee Community Center in Suwannee with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ranger, Jason Coates, who is the Engineering Equipment Operator for the Dixie Mainline road. Coates’ message was more of a warning and plea for help in stopping the rampant vandalism or the road may be closed in the future.
The Dixie Mainline is what remains of an old logging road that was used in the 1920’s to 1930’s. It became a private hunting access from 1940 – 1998, but was partially acquired and maintained by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (LSNWR) in 1979. In 1998, the road was open to the public and continues to be maintained by the LSNWR.
The LSNWR has acquired land from timber companies and private landowners for the past thirty years. Today, they have 53,000 acres and also manage 2,000 acres of land for other owners. The LSNWR property includes property that borders the Suwannee River and 30 miles of Gulf Coast marsh and islands.
The refuge opens up areas where citizens can enjoy hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, paddling, photography or just a drive to view the wildlife and landscape.
For those who use the Dixie Mainline on a regular basis, it is considered a lifeline between Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach. It’s the difference between traveling 57 miles from Suwannee to Horseshoe via CR 349, US 19 and CR 351 to taking the approximate 24-mile trip via the 8.4 miles of the Mainline.
Besides normal maintenance on the roads, the US Fish & Wildlife (USFW) rangers perform controlled burns, control invasive plants and bring the forest back to its natural state by planting native trees.
Ranger Coates is in charge of not only the 8.4 miles of the Dixie Mainline, but also an additional 185.6 miles of road within the refuge that he maintains. Dixie County has a total of 86 miles of roads, 57 gates and 49 culverts (five on the Mainline) to maintain. Levy County has 108 roads, 57 gates and 65 culverts. All of this takes a great amount of time and money.
The USFW allocates $60,000 per year for the upkeep and maintenance of the Dixie Mainline. That pays for equipment, supplies and labor. In addition to the allocation, an average of $25,000 - $35,000 is spent on repairs due to vandalism. Last year the LSNWR paid out $34,360 of taxpayers’ money, just to clean up and repair damages from vandalism and littering!
The most recent vandalism event, where a gate that was locked was destroyed and a side-mounted mower was damaged, was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” bringing Ranger Coates to set up the meeting to make folks aware of the issues that may one day lead to the road’s closure. It is just a matter of time before those in charge of funding are going to get tired of spending unnecessary money for the repair of items that have been vandalized.
Litter is another big problem on the Mainline. Last year, volunteers picked up a whopping 160 bags of trash, 4,491 aluminum cans and 12 tires. That was just off the main roadway. During the first three months and three days of 2017, 177 bags of trash have been picked up!
Ranger Coates could not have praised the volunteers enough. Their good deeds over the past two years and three months have saved LSNWR money and manpower. Volunteers have donated 2,608 hours of labor at a cost of $31,296. If you would like to join the volunteers, please contact the Refuge office at (352) 493-0238 or you can join the Friends of the Refuge organization, www.friendsofrefuges.org.
Safety is the number one priority for the refuge. Safety is why there are signs that are posted before entering the refuge. NO ATV’s, UTV’s or un-tagged or uninsured vehicles are allowed. Yet, drivers of these types of vehicles ignore the signs, travel around the gates or break them.
Upon occasion, the road has to be closed for maintenance, flooding, etc. The road is only closed due to safety reasons, yet there are those that ignore the warnings and enter anyway, again, by going around the gate or destroying it.
County Commissioner Mark Hatch was in attendance and thanked Ranger Coates for his dedication to the people of Dixie County. Hatch added that, “We need to help the ranger with the issues at hand. We must work together in protecting the road and lands around it.”
It seems unfair that the bad choices of a few could ruin access to a beautiful piece of Dixie County. That is why Ranger Coates is asking for everyone’s help. Help him keep the road cleaner, safer and open! Let’s all join in policing the road: report anything you may see that is against the rules and the safety of others. Get tag numbers and report those who are littering and vandalizing. Call the local Sheriff’s Office at (352) 498-1231 or Refuge office at (352) 4930238. Together, we can keep the Dixie Mainline open for all to enjoy.