Wildlife Survey Projects Looking For Volunteers

There are two major efforts coming up to encourage folks to get outdoors and submit data about the creatures that inhabit our environment.

The first one is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs Feb 16- 19 at a backyard, park, roadside or anywhere else you might want to look for birds anywhere in the world.

It is being coordinated by Audubon and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

It is designed to gather data on the midwinter distribution of birds in North America and elsewhere on the planet.

You can count anywhere, but you have to have a free eBird account to enter your data.

Later this year will be the City Challenge, which is being coordinated locally by The Nature Conservancy staff at Tiger Creek Preserve.

This is the second annual effort that seeks participants from anywhere in Polk County to submit observations via iNaturalist on plants and animals you observe between April 26 and 29.

For more information, contact Ginny Hamilton at v.a.hamilton@tnc.org


Lake Alfred’s Push For More Development In The Green Swamp Draws Questions

Last July the Lake Alfred City Commission agreed to annex a number of tracts containing more than 6000 acres—including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area—to reach land that could be the site of a future industrial park at the County Road 557/Old Grade Road interchange of Interstate 4 in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.

(The annexed land is the property shaded in orange in the accompanying map.)

The action danced on the edge of the minimum criteria in state law for municipal annexations since it involved a lot of land that was unpopulated and not likely to be part of any future urban development. The law said it’s okay if only some of the land fits that description, so there we are.

The move has since drawn backlash from property owners along Old Grade Road who fear more urban incursion into rural areas after receiving mailers from a developer masquerading as the city encouraging them to annex and offering to purchase their property. However, as a practical matter northward annexation seems unlikely because old land-sales subdivisions lie between the annexed property and the rural residences farther north.

Also, an official at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Public Land Administration, who signed off on the voluntary annexation of Hilochee, appeared unaware of the city’s end game and told an inquiring resident that FDEP officials may have something to say if industrial zoning is proposed across the street from one Hilochee’s entrances.

If there is an industrial zoning proposal, it would also require review by what’s left of state growth management oversight in the Florida Department of Commerce.

The fact that an action of this magnitude flew under the public’s radar for so long is another example of decline in local media coverage as Polk County is increasingly becoming a news desert when it comes to covering events in many of the county’s 17 municipalities.

As anyone who has driven north of downtown Lake Alfred on CR 557 knows, the area is turning into a sea of rooftops. The sign once erected along the highway designating the boundary of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern has long ago disappeared to make way for a subdivision entrance.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Green Swamp, it was declared an Area of Critical State Concern half a century ago because of its importance as a recharge area for the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of drinking water in central Florida. It also contains the headwaters of the Peace, Hillsborough, Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha rivers and is a hub in a statewide network of wildlife corridors.

One of the important battles Sierra and other conservation groups have waged is to prevent encroachment into the core of this critical area that is important to the region’s hydrology and wildlife.

The development of an industrial park, which would lie far outside any plans by the city to extend water and sewer service, would mean industrial onsite waste disposal, which is not something the aquifer in that part of state needs.

In approving the annexation, city officials said they will discuss what kind of land-use classifications should apply to the annexed properties sometime in the future.

Since there is nothing anyone can do about the annexation, the land-use hearings may be the best place to speak up.

This is an issue in which everyone needs to stay tuned.

Some Thoughts On The Ongoing Split Oak Forest Toll Road Invasion Discussion

One of the key conservation discussions in central Florida over the past few years has involved the proposal to allow a toll road to be built through a corner of a state conservation site called Split Oak Forest in Orange and Osceola counties north of us to accommodate more urban sprawl in the greater Orlando-Kissimmee megaplex. Osceola County officials are pushing for the idea. Orange County officials (and voters) are resisting it.

That discussion continued today in a feature story published in the Orlando Sentinel that posited that allowing the toll road to take a piece of the preserve in exchange for awarding conservation land on the other side of the cut and millions of dollars offered by development interests to manage the new fragment would make everything fine and preserve an important wildlife corridor for Florida panthers and other wildlife.

Unfortunately for that argument, the story included a map that illustrated that these hard-fought conservation lands were in fact the last green islands in a sea of current and proposed development in the surrounding private property that dominates the area.

In the background is a discussion that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees the management of Split Oak, over whether to approve the road project proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which has already constructed a network of toll roads that have forever changed the character of what were once wild lands in this part of Florida.

Given the politics in Tallahassee, cynics might conclude that the fix is already in.

But there is an important principle involved in this discussion.

Several years ago, former Gov. Rick Scott floated an idea to surplus a bunch of state conservation lands, including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in the Green Swam Area of Critical State Concern.

The idea fortunately did not go anywhere.

This proposal is more troubling. That is because it would amount to essentially surplusing state conservation land to accommodate commercial development interests, which would set a troubling precedent.

As was pointed out in this space earlier, the idea has local implications when you consider the long-game priorities of the road-building and development lobbies.

There is a project on the so-called transportation “needs” project list in Polk County that involves realigning Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to create a new truck freight route through a state wildlife corridor with the goal of connecting U.S 27 and U.S. 98 via a shortcut that would run through the two state conservation lands–Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Hampton Tract and Collt Creek State Park—to complete the link.

As they say, if you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask for a glass of milk.

Be careful what you agree to give away,

Florida May Get New Specialty Auto Tag To Encourage Recycling

Even as curbside residential recycling programs are disappearing in parts of Florida, there is plenty of commercial recycling occurring and a proposed new specialty tag is intended to give the effort more visibility.

Legislators are considering a pair of bills (HB 911 and SB 858) that would create the tag and direct the proceeds to an Ocala-based organization called Recycle Florida Today Inc.

The organization, which was founded in 1990, is composed of a coalition of public agencies and private companies involved in various aspects of the recycling industry in Florida. It includes some companies that have locations in this part of the state.

The sponsors listed on the Recycle Florida Today website include companies and organizations that operate recycling businesses, market recycling equipment and provide information on recycling businesses and recycling education.

According to the legislation, the purpose of the tag is to raise money to ” increase public awareness about the importance of recycling, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship; to promote robust, comprehensive, and sustainable recycling programs; and to support the professional development of persons employed in fields relating to recycling, conservation, and sustainability.”

The legislative session still has a month ago, but so far the legislation has not faced any opposition.

Will Legislature Make Agencies Less Accountable, Privatize Public Water Resources?

As conservative business groups make their case before the U.S. Supreme Court to rein in what they consider the excesses of federal agency actions, the Florida Legislature is trying to protect local and state agencies from any outside oversight, especially from the environmental community.

A pair of bills (SB 768 and HB 789 ) moving through the committees would force citizen groups to pay agencies’ legal fees if they challenge what they consider bad permitting decisions and lose.

This is not about frivolous lawsuits intended merely to gum up the process. Judges already have the authority to drop the hammer on that kind of foolishness.

Instead, this is about serious issues.

The most recent case cited that would have been affected if the proposed law would have been in place was a suit filed by the Florida Springs Council that challenged the decision by the Suwanee River Water Management District to allow a water bottling company to divert nearly 1 million gallons a day from a spring, They unsuccessfully argued about the withdrawal’s effect on stream flow in local rivers as well as the larger issue of why the idea of producing bottled water from public water bodies is a beneficial use of a public resource.

Many people consider the bottled water industry’s marketing a hoax in the first place, but apparently the judge in this case was unmoved and upheld the permit.

The question is if the Legislature passes the bill and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it, will it mean the end of citizen challenges to questionable permit decisions because of the financial consequences if they lose.

In other words, it comes down to this: If you do not have deep pockets, you might think twice before you try to take on the deep state.

The term “deep state” is often cited by conservatives, but in reality, it cuts both ways.

Meanwhile, there is another bill (SB 1386) that has been proposed that includes a provision to allow water-use permits to be granted for 30 years instead of 20 year if permittees agree to some conservation and water reuse measures.

One question that merits further discussion is whether a 30-year permit, which would likely outlive the career of the water management district official who granted it, could become another foot in the door to efforts to turn water permits into water rights. Such efforts have so far been unsuccessful so far in Florida, but the issue bears watching.

One of the next stops for the lawsuit bill is the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose membership includes two members of the local legislative delegation, Sen Ben Albritton of Wauchula and Sen. Colleen Burton of Lakeland. It would not hurt to drop them a line and let them know how you feel.



DeSantis’ State Of The State Green Claims Fall Short

It took a while sitting through Gov. Ron DeSantis’ typical whiny list of his culture war grudges in this week’s State of the State address to state leaders before the environment rated a mention.

His comments, of course, didn’t last long, left out some key facts and ended on a troublesome note.

Yes, thanks to federal funding assistance, Florida will spend $5 billion on what passes for Everglades restoration projects and another $1 billion or so for other conservation and water-quality projects.

There is no mention of the $18 billion or so he and his allies in the Florida Legislature left on the table by ignoring the public’s support for a 2014 constitutional amendment that they worked hard to quash in court to prevent the restart Florida’s ambitious land-acquisition program.

There was no mention of the fact that he appointed a panel of experts to devise solutions to the pollution discharges that were fueling blue-green algae outbreaks and then ignored their recommendations.

There was no mention of the ongoing efforts by legislators with his support to continue to weaken any vestiges of growth management in an increasingly overcrowded state that DeSantis incorrectly describes as the nation’s third largest state. The facts are worse. Florida is the 22nd largest state in the nation, but the third most populous, which is at the root of the problem. Add to that the efforts by DeSantis and his allies to make it even more crowded and to suppress efforts by local officials to do otherwise and any Tallahassee greenwashing fades quickly.

His wrap up comments referred to unnamed people who want to take away the right to hunt and fish even though no such movement with any political support exists.

That leads to the question of whether that pronouncement was about something else.

The right to hunt and fish is already contained in state law and the regulations for doing so sustainability are contained in rules promulgated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

However, there is a National Rifle Association-backed proposed constitutional amendment to the Florida Constitution headed for this year’s ballot that would put the right to hunt and fish into the Florida Constitution and further declare that hunting and fishing are the supreme methods of wildlife management in Florida.

Critics have expressed concern that the passage of this amendment could mean creating an open season on bear hunting, undoing the commercial net ban and endangering private property rights.

Whether DeSantis’ comments means he is endorsing this amendment is something to watch.


Warmest Year On Record? It’s Complicated

There have been a lot of stories published lately proclaiming 2023 was the hottest year on the planet since temperature records were first recorded in the 19th century.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature records in this part of the world were not that uniform.

It was the hottest year on record in Lakeland, where records stretch back to 1915. But to complicate things a bit, it was the 39th warmest December.

Across the county in Winter Haven, where temperature records begin in 1941, it was the 6th warmest year and the 32nd coolest December, tying the record set in 1987.

Farther south in Bartow, 2023 was the second warmest year behind 1998. It was the 35th warmest December. Temperature records there go back to 1892.

Even farther south in Wauchula, where they began correcting temperature records in 1933, it was the 8th warmest year and the 40th warmest December.

Looking at the 10 hottest years and months, fractions of a degree Fahrenheit separate many of the rankings. Although most of the hottest recorded temperatures have mostly occurred in the past 30 years, there are a few clinkers in there.

There is a tie for second warmest year in Wauchula between 2008 and 1948.

The third warmest December in Bartow occurred in 1948.

The second warmest December in Lakeland occurred in 1931.

Stay cool.