In Stressful Times, Shutting Us Out Of Nature Is A Mistake

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in decisions to close many natural areas at a time when people need the balm of a quiet outdoor experience to help them to get through this stressful time.

The latest decision came from the South Florida Water Management District, which closed its outdoor recreation areas Tuesday.

This follows a decision to close all of the state parks and many beaches and city and county parks and environmental preserves.

For the moment, state and national forests, national wildlife refuges and most other recreation lands managed by the other water management districts remain open along with wildlife management areas overseen by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission though visitor centers and administrative offices are closed to the public St. Johns River Water Management District has closed the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive temporarily

This is ironic because Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order specifically exempts hiking, hunting, fishing and boating as long as you observe the important social-distancing recommendations.

Perhaps public input can persuade officials to modify the restrictions in ways that can provide outdoor recreation opportunities without threatening public health.

We’ll see. Stay healthy.

Polk Shutting Down Park , Environmental Lands Sites

Polk County officials announced Friday they are closing county parks and environmental lands facilities effective at sunset on Saturday as part of the Coronavirus prevention strategy.

The press release mentions ballfields, shooting ranges, campgrounds and playgrounds as well as the Bone Valley ATV site.

How the closings will be accomplished was not disclosed. Some facilities have gates or road entrances that can be blocked, but others are in neighborhoods.

The idea seems to be to discourage large public gatherings, though some of the remote environmental lands sites are not heavily visited.

It was interesting that boat ramps were not specifically mentioned, perhaps indicating county officials were more willing to inconvenience birdwatchers and hikers than anglers and boaters.

Also notable was the fact that Polk’s communication folks waited until the day of the closing to announce it. The cynical explanation is that allows them to make an announcement at time when official sources are more difficult to reach for reactions.

It will be interesting to see if state officials in charge of state parks, state forests and other conservation lands will take similar steps. They so far seem more sensible about the value of green spaces to the public.

 

 

Virus Precautions Temporarily Close Conservation Sites, Offices

The ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of Conovirus has resulted in a number of office and facility closures at environmental agencies and outdoor recreational venues.

The offices of the Southwest Florida and South Florida Water management districts will be closed to the public.

Additionally. Swiftmud campgrounds have been temporarily closed. SFWMD facility closure announcements are pending.

The Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve will be closed for 30 days, but the outdoor hiking trails will remain open. All other Polk County Environmental Lands sites will remain open.

Florida state parks will remain open, but all special events and tours have been canceled.

Ancient Islands Sierra Club events, including gardening work days and regular meetings, will be canceled until further notice.

We urge all of our friends and supporters to take reasonable actions to remain safe and healthy.

Legislature May Fatten Toll Road Pork Barrel Proposal; Imagine That

The Florida Legislature is still scrambling to justify last year’s politically-influenced legislation to order a series of task force studies to justify the construction of hundreds of miles of new toll roads through rural sections of Florida’s heartland, Florida Politics reports.

The latest is a $5 million-a-year (no mention of how many years) subsidy for setting up broadband internet service for rural communities, which sometimes are underserved because there are not enough potential customers to attract corporate internet providers.

In addition, legislators have proposed extending the deadline for the task forces’ final reports from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15.

As the last meeting of the Southwest Corridor indicated, the lack of a specific proposed corridor for the highway’s route, is a sore point among local officials, who seem to be banking on some kind of state-funded economic development pork barrel appropriation.

The official party line from the state transportation staff, which is in contrast from what participants understood when the process began last summer, is that there really won’t be any line on a map, but simply some guiding principles that will determine the road’s route, according to a recent report from The Ledger in Lakeland.

If that is accurate, it will mean Tallahassee, not the task force, will decide where the road will be built or (if all options are open) whether any new road will be built.

In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

 

EPA: Polk Fertilizer Plant’s Sulfur Dioxide Emissions Now In Attainment

State and federal environmental officials announced that Polk County is back in attainment for air pollution.

The change is effective March23 and includes a maintenance plan to prevent a recurrence of conditions that led to non-attainment.

A portion of Polk in the Bartow-Mulberry area has declared a non-attainment area in 2018 because of sulfur dioxide emissions from Mosaic’s New Wales and Bartow plants.

The change occurred after Mosaic completed improvements at its plants last year, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The announcement was made in a Thursday press release issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“With the recent focus on improving water quality around the state, people often forget that we are responsible also to safeguard the air. We are clearly doing a good job in that regard. Attainment of ambient air quality standards across the state drives that message home and highlights the importance of maintaining strong public and private partnerships to protect Florida’s environment,” said Florida Chief Science Officer Dr. Tom Frazer, according to the press release.

The EPA had also classified portions of Hillsborough and Nassau counties for non-attainment for sulfur dioxide but both are now under maintenance status.

In the 1990s, Hillsborough and some other Florida urban areas had been in non-attainment for ozone caused by vehicle emissions, but are now in maintenance status.

 

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Still No Toll Road Route Map; Panel Getting Restless About Uncertainty

Backers of the plan to build a toll road though southwest Florida’s heartland have been dangling the prospects of bringing better broadband and other utility infrastructure to rural communities to gain support for the project.

The idea created some backlash at Wednesday’s latest task force meeting in Sebring. That’s because, as local officials pointed out to the staff transportation staff who should already know this, it is hard to plan where to put water and sewer lines or fiber cable until you know where the road is going. And, that also means you have to know whether the road will run so you can decide whether it is feasible to even consider extending infrastructure to meet it.

That was true even for project supporters such as Polk County Commissioner Rick Wilson, a task force member. He said he was frustrated after sitting through five meetings since last summer that he still doesn’t have a clue where the road is going to run. This is vital so local officials will know where to invest, he said.

Other task force members said they were concerned about the disconnect between plans for the road and local growth plans, especially since state oversight of local growth plans has lapsed in recent years. Others said conservation planning ought to also be part of the discussion because of the great amount of environmentally sensitive lands containing rare and endangered species that lie within the study corridor.

The lack of good maps showing environmentally important lands that the road should avoid or mitigate was a recurring criticism from task force members and the public that commented after the formal meeting.

Ancient Islands Chair Tom Palmer and Conservation Chair Marian Ryan testified. Palmer said the idea that a new road can solve traffic congestion problems in the third most populous state in the nation is delusional. Ryan detailed the large amount of missing information in the mapping of conservation areas potentially in the road’s path.

Additionally, since the law requires local governments to amend their growth plans to accommodate the project, a number of local officials said state transportation officials have to give them detailed information on the route soon enough to act, citing the length of time it takes to develop amendments and to go through the review process.

There were also were unanswered questions about just what segment of the traffic on existing roads would use any new road that is built. That’s because a lot of the traffic on sometimes congested existing highways such as Interstate 75 is local traffic rather than long-distance traffic. That is, the new road may not go where they’re going.

That means unanswered questions remain a major component of the discussion though task force members are continuing to ask intelligent questions.

The next meeting will occur April 28 in Arcadia. Bring your questions.

 

 

Toll Road “Avoidance” Map Needs Work

Florida Department of Transportation officials released a more usable map of the areas the proposed toll road through the southwest Florida heartland will supposedly avoid.

To save face, they stamped it as a draft document.

Well, first the good news.

The road won’t cross any lakes, though rivers and creeks may be another since it is hard to cross that big an area without building a bridge somewhere.

State parks, state forests and national parks and national wildlife refuges are off limits. The map doesn’t depict all of the public conservation lands, so we’ll have to take their word for it.

Next, the fake news.

Local public conservation lands are supposedly protected, though the map depicts the Marshall Hampton Reserve on Lake Hancock as a protected area even though a northern leg of this project will push right through and raze the scenic oak hammock on its northern end.

Some privately owned conservation lands and private lands protected by conservation easements are depicted on the map. Many are not.

It will be interesting to see if anyone raises questions about whether building a new highway through land protected by a conservation easement violates the easement provisions.

Additionally, some of the so-called avoidance areas lie in areas where it never seemed likely the road’s route would be located in the first place even though they lie in the study area, creating an impression of environmental generosity that didn’t really exist.

Finally, the map appears to ignore any lands listed as high-priority conservation purchases that remain unfunded because the Florida Legislature refuses to appropriate the money authorized by a constitutional amendment.

The next southwest toll road task force meeting will occur next Wednesday at the Bert Harris Agriculture Center in Sebring.