The news on the conservation land front has been mixed lately.
There have been some recent conservation easement purchases that will help to protect more land from the bulldozers along the Lake Wales Ridge and along some tributaries of the Peace and Kissimmee rivers.
But then there’s the Split Oak Forest debacle north of us in Orange and Osceola counties.
It is at the center of a long-running fight over plans to jam still another toll road through conservation lands to allow commuters to get to and from the latest urban sprawl development as the Orlando megalopolis spreads its tentacles farther and farther into the countryside.
There’s a big meeting next week in Tallahassee before Florida Communities Trust, which provided some of the money to buy Split Oak Forest to save some remain green space in that part of Florida, to determine where they stand on the wisdom of this project.
According to press reports, developers and the road-building lobby originally wanted to run the road through the middle of Split Oak. The revised proposal, which has split the environmental community, proposes to route the road through one corner of the preserve and to donate some beat-up woods and pasture elsewhere to compensate for the environmental damage, loss of recreational access etc. etc. etc.
I have not seen any information on how much it would cost—providing this scheme wins approval– to restore the offered property and whether it would even be attractive enough to encourage anyone to visit in the first place.
How does this affect me, you might ask?
Because it could set another bad precedent by eroding the ability of public conservation lands to withstand the onslaught of the development and road-building lobbies, which are often two sides of the same coin.
As many of you know, a portion of the Marshall Hampton Reserve across Lake Hancock from Circle B is already destined for a slight trim of its northeast corner containing a mix of fields and oak forests to make way for the western leg of a toll road called the Central Polk Parkway. The road is intended to collect traffic from the freight and industrial park in south Winter Haven and beyond and route it to the Polk Parkway.
The bulldozers should be moving on that project within the next couple of years. Enjoy your shaded hikes while you can and watch for a new parking area farther south, or at least that’s what been promised.
More disturbing in this vein is the revival of a long-abandoned plan to run another major highway through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern on a route that would potentially cut through another tract named after the late Marshall Hampton and a portion of Colt Creek State Park. Its justification is improved freight movement.
The good news is that there is no funding for this project. But road projects never really die—another version of this idea was first proposed in the 1970s by the Florida Department of Transportation– and the next generation of local environmental leaders in Polk may have to deal with it, too.
When the road was first proposed in the early 1970s, the Green Swamp had only recently been declared an Area of Critical State Concern and how it would be protected was up in the air. There was little if any public conservation land there –today there are tens of thousands of acres of conservation lands—and it was not as well recognized what an important link the Green Swamp was in a statewide network of wildlife corridors.
Add to that in those days the idea of considering environmental impact of road projects was a new concept. Polk County sometimes built roads through swamps elsewhere to accommodate well-connected developers. It was a different era.
What the sneaking suspicion some of us have is that once there is a new “improved” road running through the Green Swamp, things could change. There could be future political pressure after many of the people who understand the Green Swamp’s importance are dead to ease off on the development restrictions now in place to accommodate population growth and economic development, despite the long-term consequences.
Everything, whether it’s ecology or the politics of roads and development—is connected and we fail to recognize that at our peril.