By Joel Addington
The Press - News (Macclenny, FL)
ATV riders-after years of waiting-recently gained access to roughly half of the St. Mary's Shoals Park trail system, marking the last milestone in the county park's seven-year development.
About a month ago, the county opened trails on the park's western side to riders on Saturdays and Sundays after a test-group of motorists shared positive reviews.
Now, park ranger and sheriff's deputy David Wright said, 10 to 12 riders a day regularly visit the more than 2400-acre tract acquired from private owners in two purchases in 2004 and 2010 using millions of dollars in land conservation grants from the state.
"It's mostly families just wanting to go someplace outside to ride and get away from other vehicles," he said.
The county hired Mr. Wright, a retired Florida Highway Patrol trooper, early this year to patrol the grounds, do maintenance and manage Shoals Park on a part-time basis.
ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, are restricted to the weekends between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., which coincides with much of the officer's work schedule.
Equestrian riders and hikers, who have been frequenting the park since it opened in 2009, have access to trails on the eastern side of Shoals Park seven days a week from dawn till dusk.
Each half of the park has a separate entrance and parking area to keep the horses and hikers buffered from ATV riders.
The park, located about four miles north of Glen St. Mary, west of Jacksonville, FL, on Odis Yarborough Road, is functionally complete with signs, trail markings, paving for the ATV parking area, restrooms, fencing, picnic tables and pavilions, all in place.
More improvements could be forthcoming, however.
The county recently signed a $500,000 grant contract with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, according to grants coordinator Maurice Postal.
"Fifteen percent can be used for planning and engineering [at Shoals Park]," he said by e-mail Nov. 7. "The rest of it has to be spent on strengthening or replacing the logging road bridge over Cedar Creek and on improving the trail system."
Securing a tractor would make maintaining the trails easier, Mr. Wright pointed out last week. Today, a tractor is borrowed from the road department, which works Monday through Thursday, on the weekends when the park sees most of its visitors.
The state's Greenways and Trails office is sending someone to do GPS mapping of the trail system, but officials have estimated in the past there's about 17 miles of ATV trails and 19 miles of horse trails in Shoals Park. The property is also bounded on the north by a roughly 2-mile stretch of the St. Mary's River.
Recent timber harvesting at the park generated some $360,000, from which about $109,000 was siphoned to replant pine trees in accordance with park's timber management plan, said county manager C.J. Thompson last week.
Some of the revenue from tree harvesting could be used to fund a second bridge over Cedar Creek, which would further discourage interactions between ATV and horse riders, he said.
There's also potential for advertising revenue, added Mr. Thompson, like signs promoting ATV manufacturers. Park use remains free, though county commissioners have discussed a small fee for ATV riders to ensure the park remains self-funding.
According to the county manager, harvesting and replanting pine trees has been the biggest challenge lately, but another has been public perception.
During a recent meeting with a group of residents about the county's budget woes, Mr. Thompson said they suggested Shoals Park as a place to cut to reduce the county's estimated $2.2 million deficit this year.
"I've had to repeatedly tell some that the park isn't costing us any money. And some just simply don't believe me. Some people are convinced that if we shut the park down tomorrow, that will somehow reduce the deficit," he said.
Still on the county manager and Mr. Wright's wish list for the park are brochures with a trail maps and information about the wildlife and other park features, rough terrain warning signs, larger print on signs noting park rules and an ATV for the park ranger, who traverses the area in a sheriff's office-issued SUV or smaller, golf-cart like vehicle called a gator.
"We have an ATV park, but I don't have an ATV," said Mr. Wright. "I could be a little more aggressive on patrols with an ATV."
The officer also wants to remind visitors that under Florida law, ATV riders under 16 years old must wear a helmet and eye goggles and be with an adult at all times.
The speed limit on the ATV trails is 25 mph.
"These are nature trails, not competition trails," Mr. Wright said.