Latest Florida Environmental History’s Hits And Misses

I just finished reading Clay Henderson’s recently published book titled Forces of Nature A History of Florida Land Conservation.

I didn’t get more than a few pages into this ambitious work by one of the state’s most prominent environmental attorneys when I ran into his description of Florida as the “third-largest state in America.”

That is not the first time I had read or heard this claim. It is wildly inaccurate.

Florida is actually the 22nd largest state in the nation by area (26th largest if you include only land area).

Where it does rank third is in population. That is why Florida, whose area is less than half of Montana, the fourth-largest state in the union (and 43rd most populated), is in trouble environmentally. The threat is the result of both population growth and the decisions in Tallahassee over much of the state’s recent history not to deal very seriously with the issue.

Henderson’s account is the best when he describes in the opening chapters how keen observers of Florida’s environment understood long ago the importance of the connections among various branches of the natural world and in the conclusion when he lays out what needs to be done to save as much as we can, if only politicians can be persuaded to do the right thing.

The rest of the book can be a daunting read at times because the prose lies deep in the weeds of blow-by-blow descriptions of every environmental dispute in which the author has been involved.

If there were ever an important environmental volume that could have benefitted from better editing, this is it.

The problem with the book isn’t just the sometimes over-shared descriptions of environmental disputes and some of the disjointed narrative, but the absence of much recognition of some key battles that occurred in the heartland miles away from the mostly coastal disputes about which he primarily writes.

There is, for instance, no discussion of the decades-long fight to protect the Green Swamp that continues today (by the way, it contains the headwaters of four rivers, not two and the geologist who did important work there was Gerard Parker, not Gerald Parker), no discussion of some key battles over public ownership of inland lakes and rivers (Mobil case, anyone?, only passing mention of the events leading up to and throughout the efforts to restore the Kissimmee River or the effects of phosphate mining on the landscape and the subsequent restoration efforts that belatedly occurred after reclamation became mandatory.

Fortunately, the author included a bibliography listing many books about Florida’s environment that are worth reading that will fill some of those gaps.

In the meantime, this book further confirms Polk County voters’ decision last year to approve funding for more environmental land protection because it’s obvious from this history that if you are waiting for the current regime in Tallahassee to do anything, you may be waiting a long time and it is time we do not have.




Soto Seeks Funding For Kissimmee River Study

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee is seeking funding to start a planned three-year study by the U.S. Department of the Interior of a portion of the Kissimmee River in connection with a proposal to include it on the list of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the United States.

Soto has been quoted as saying the approval of the designation, which still faces a number of hurdles, could protect a portion of the river from development encroachment and could pave the way for further restoration funding.

The Kissimmee River was converted from a wild, winding river system into a drainage ditch in the 1960s in response to flooding in its headwaters in the 1940s.

The project, which was opposed at the time by environmentalists and outdoor recreationists, was later recognized as an environment disaster. It dried up floodplain marshes, causing severe declines in waterfowl and other wetlands-dependent wildlife. The project also eliminated those marshes’ ability to filter pollution flowing toward Lake Okeechobee from, the river’s headwaters in the Orlando-Kissimmee area.

A $1 billion restoration project of a portion of the river’s original channel, which was completed last year, resulted in a rebound in wildlife populations though state and federal officials are still working on legacy pollution issues in the system.

The proposed study would involve a section of the river beginning about 16 miles south of Lake Kissimmee and ending about 15 miles upstream from Lake Okeechobee.

Further Congressional action is pending the completion of the study, which is estimated to cost no more than $500,000, according to backup information accompanying the House bill. Any spending and other actions would require U.S. Senate concurrence.

How Did The Environment Fare In Heartland In 2022?

Although there is still a lot of work to do, this past year generally provided good news for environmental issues within the area served by Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group that stretches from DeSoto to Sumter counties.

The two top stories were the approval by Polk County voters of a referendum to restart funding for the Polk County Environmental Lands’ land-acquisition program and Mosaic’s announcement that it was putting plans to expand phosphate mining in DeSoto County on hold.

The environmental lands referendum, which was approved by a larger margin than the original 1994 proposal, will for the first time allow the program to purchase conservation easements from willing sellers. Some landowners reportedly have already inquired about their eligibility.

In Arcadia, Mosaic announced in July that it will delay plans to ask the DeSoto County Commission to reconsider its decision to rezone thousands of acres to allow phosphate mining until at least 2025.

Meanwhile, county commissioners have staged a series of workshops to hear testimony on various aspects on the effects of phosphate mining on land use, water quality, hydrology, wildlife and air quality featuring Mosaic’s presentations that attempt to justify their operations and assure residents the effects will be minimal. Residents remain skeptical since the planned mining operations would involve nearly a fifth of the county’s area.

But there were other highs and lows throughout the year.

The year did not begin well after a Tallahassee judge ruled against Sierra and other plaintiffs attempting to force the Florida Legislature to properly spend money approved in a 2014 constitutional amendment intended to revive the Florida Forever program.

The curious ruling argued the plaintiff’s, who initially took the issue to court in 2015, had waited too long to press their case, ignoring the fact that it was the defendants who have strung out the process and that there was no attempt to make the compensation retroactive but just telling the Tallahassee establishment to go forth and sin no more.

Nevertheless, some state land purchases continue. Over the past year Florida has purchased conservation easements in Hardee and DeSoto counties on ranchlands along Horse and Charlie creeks.

One of the many threats to the environment and rural communities is the construction of new highways farther and farther into the countryside.

There were mixed results on that front in 2022.

In August state transportation officials announced they were shelving—at least for now—a plan to extend the Florida Turnpike through portions of Sumter County.

But in Polk County plans are still under way to advance plans for the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway through rural lands on the outskirts of Lake Wales, Haines City and Davenport in an attempt to allegedly relieve congestion on U.S. 27 even though it is unclear whether this will be nothing more than a developer-influenced sprawlway. Worse yet, its northern terminus lies in an already congested section of Interstate 4.

Looking farther ahead, Polk road officials are pushing a plan to realign Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to build a truck route that would also cut through state conservation lands on its way to U.S. 98. There’s no money for this project, though there is a proposal to put yet another sales tax referendum on the 2024 ballot.

There were controversial development projects that arose in 2022 in rural areas.

The most-discussed was the attempt to turn Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha into a new residential subdivision and the site for a new high school. As the year ends, the property owner has now pivoted to ask the state to purchase a conservation easement over the property now that the potential cost has been jacked up because of the development proposal.

Meanwhile, Sierra and area property owners have submitted information about other potential school sites and analyzed the school system’s staff flawed analysis that argued for the original site.

The County Commission also in November voted to deny a plan for a private race track on ranchland near the shore of Lake Walkinwater because it was clearly incompatible. Earlier in the year commissioners denied a request for a new subdivision along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal on the outskirts of Bartow because it was too low-lying. That evaluation was further confirmed after Hurricane Ian when a large section of the property was underwater.

Finally, if you live in unincorporated Polk County enjoy curbside recycling while it lasts.

The County Commission has endorsed a staff proposal to end the current system in 2024 with an option of turning the service, which was never well-promoted and whose contamination problems were never seriously addressed, to a private company to which residents could hire at additional costs.

Happy New Year.





Parks In Polk, Sumter Plan New Year’s Day Hikes

One of the core activities of Sierra Club is to get people outdoors.

There are upcoming opportunities to do this and start 2023 with an outdoor experience.

Those opportunities are:

Circle B Bar Reserve, 4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland, will host a hike beginning at 9 a.m.

Lake Kissimmee State Park, 14248 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales, will host a ranger-led hike beginning at 10 a.m.

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, 7200 Battlefield Parkway, Bushnell, will host a ranger-led hike beginning at 10 a.m.

In addition, you can plan a do-it-yourself hike alone or with friends at any of a variety of state and county preserves, state forests or water management district recreational sites located throughout the region served by the Ancient Islands Group in DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Sumter counties.

The important thing is to get outdoors as often as you can. There is always plenty to see and enjoy.



What’s Next For Renewed Polk Environmental Lands Program?

Some of you have wondered what happens next now that the voters have agreed to renew funding for the Polk County Environmental Lands acquisition efforts.

One key decision involves reviving the committee that will review applications for funding under the program.

The County Commission is scheduled to consider a resolution early next year to re-establish the committee.

Applications for membership are scheduled to be solicited by March and in May commissioners are scheduled to appoint members, based on staff recommendations. How the public will be informed about the application process is still being worked out.

The committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting in late summer to lay out the procedures, which have been fine-tuned from what was contained in the 1994 ordinance that set up the earlier program.

The voter-approved tax will not take effect until the 2023-24 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That means funding will start rolling in early in 2024 after tax payments begin rolling in.

The amount of revenue the tax will generate is speculative at this point, but will be clearer by mid-summer when Polk County Property Appraiser Marsha Faux releases the tentative tax roll and the County Commission sets the tax rate for the next fiscal year.

As many of you recall, the tax was divided into two portions. One part was for acquisition and another part for management.

There are rumored to be a number of property owners who have already contacted county officials asking to be considered under the program.

It sounds as though it should be off to a good start, but as noted above, the start date will not be immediate. Be patient.





The Myth That You Can Build Your Way Out Of Traffic Congestion Is Still Alive and Well In Polk County

The idea that building a new road will relieve congestion on an existing road has been examined often and found lacking.

That fact has not deterred Polk County transportation planners from continuing to defend the idea that the construction of the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway is just what drivers on U.S. 27 need.

There is no question that the section of U.S. 27 in Polk County—particularly the section in northeast Polk north of Haines City—is congested at many times of day and will become even more congested in the future.

This result also was no surprise to everyone except some Polk County planners.

When the area in the northern U.S. 27 corridor began to explode 25 years ago, a senior Polk planner told me it caught him and his staff by surprise.

That surprised me, because these were the same people who fought (along with the local development community and the County Commission) against state growth-management planners (when there was such a thing) for years to gain development entitlements along the highway after freezes in the late 1980s wiped out citrus production north of Interstate 4 and left many landowners with no alternative but to sell to developers.

What else did they expect to happen?

There were plans to build alternative roads along the corridor to relieve local traffic, but the funding for much of that evaporated when the development bubble blew up in 2008 and the tax base plummeted.

Meanwhile, those development entitlements and the ever-liberalized county land-use policies created a sea of new subdivisions and commercial strip developments and the inevitable demand for traffic lights, which added to the congestion.

The push to build a new toll road that will wind through the suburbs of Lake Wales, Haines City and surrounding communities assumes that U.S. 27 drivers will somehow agree to pay for the privilege to detour miles out of their way to get back to U.S. 27 near I-4 only to return to even worse gridlock similar to what daily commuters face on I-4 where two other toll roads and Walt Disney World’s exits converge.

That idea also ignores the fact that the new road and inevitable demand for interchanges to serve development interests will create additional development magnets to what is already happening on the outskirts of these communities.

It is hard not to assume that whoever moves into the subdivisions along the new toll road will use it. The combination of local and detoured traffic will simply move the congestion to two roads instead of one.

Meanwhile, planners appear to have scrapped plans to widen U.S. 17-92 between Haines City and the Osceola County line, arguing it will not help the U.S. 27 congestion problem, even though it might help local traffic flow.

However, the section of U.S. 17-92 in Osceola County is being widened, which will create a bottleneck for motorists headed to Polk County and additional congestion.

Finally, the idea that people should be able to drive around in one of the fastest-growing counties in one of the most populous states in the nation and not experience traffic backups on major highways is simply delusional.

It’s too bad the powers that be plan to spend north of $1 billion to confirm that delusion.



More Details Emerge On East Polk Toll Road Plans; Unless You’re A Developer Or A Consultant, The News Is Not Good

You have to scroll down into the Transportation Planning Organization’s Dec. 15 agenda backup (they say it is at page 40, but is really at page 76) to find out what’s happening with the controversial eastern leg of the Central Polk, Parkway.

This is a proposed toll road that would potentially loop someday from State Road 60 on the south side of Winter Haven through rural areas of northeast Polk County to reach Interstate 4 somewhere near the interchange with another toll road that loops along Orlando’s western suburbs.

If you think the route to Orlando on I-4 congested now, just wait a few years. It will be a lot worse if these plans come to fruition.

Although there is the obligatory disclaimer that the decision on whether to construct these roads will require analysis per Florida law, it is hard to imagine that the Florida Department of Transportation and its allies in the development and road-building lobby would propose to spend $918.9 million (that’s almost $1 billion) on engineering and environmental studies and right of way acquisition on a road project they have no intention of constructing unless the state is amazingly fiscally irresponsible.

What is really interesting is that the rationale for this road project is partly to relieve congestion on U.S 27. There is quite a bit of local traffic on U.S. 27 that area residents contend could be relieved if only the section of U.S. 17-92 between Haines City and the Osceola County line were widened to four lanes.

In the latest funding proposal, that project has been defunded. It may be no coincidence that much of the undeveloped land along that segment is marginally developable, if you believe in coincidences.

This project was shelved several years ago because it was considered not economically feasible. Times and politics change and urban sprawl is on the rebound as the economy improves.

Besides, the Polk County growth plan is subject to change at any moment to allow more and denser development. The cost of providing services will come later.

State growth management laws were tossed out the window years ago and transportation and any other kinds of concurrency have become museum artifacts.

Prepare for the worst.