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Why the Florida Wildlife Corridor couldn't save Split Oak Forest

After environmentalists celebrated Split Oak Forest’s 30th birthday earlier this year, the forest is now set to lose some of its “perpetual” conservation protections to make room for a controversial toll road. 
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
After environmentalists celebrated Split Oak Forest’s 30th birthday earlier this year, the forest is now set to lose some of its “perpetual” conservation protections to make room for a controversial toll road. 

The Florida Wildlife Corridor’s vision for conservation land in Florida stops short of providing mechanisms to make it a reality.

In partnership with the Florida Trident, Oviedo Community News and WGCU, Central Florida Public Media is taking a deep look at what the Florida Wildlife Corridor does and doesn’t mean for our region. Below is the first installment of our two-part series, part of a special, statewide collaboration called: "Preserve or Develop? The Race Against Time to Protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor.”

Today, jumbo jets routinely rumble above Split Oak Forest on their way to Orlando International Airport, just a 13 minutes’ drive away (traffic depending, of course).

But Friends of Split Oak Forest President Valerie Anderson says she remembers the 1980s and 1990s, when this area was quieter and less developed. Back then, she says the area surrounding Split Oak was so rural, you could easily ride your horse right into the forest.

Nowadays, as developers build residential communities and shopping centers all around Split Oak, Anderson would be surprised if she saw someone entering on horseback. Still, she says this protected, roughly 1,700-acre natural area is a respite. She and many others in Central Florida say they often come here to Split Oak to recenter; find a moment of peace. For them, this place is therapeutic.

But Anderson knows in Central Florida, large, biodiverse natural landscapes like Split Oak are increasingly threatened by development.

“If we don't protect them, we won't have them,” Anderson said.

<a  href="https://www.fnps.org/">Florida Native Plants Society</a>’s director of communications and programming, Valerie Anderson, looks at an oak tree leaf while walking through Split Oak Forest on March 4, 2024. Anderson is president of Friends of Split Oak Forest, a nonprofit started in 2018 to advocate for the entire forest’s protection and responsible management.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
Florida Native Plants Society’s director of communications and programming, Valerie Anderson, looks at an oak tree leaf while walking through Split Oak Forest on March 4, 2024. Anderson is president of Friends of Split Oak Forest, a nonprofit started in 2018 to advocate for the entire forest’s protection and responsible management.

In 2022, for the first time since the late 1950s, Florida became the fastest-growing U.S. state. Over the next year, almost all of Florida's 67 counties grew in population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That booming population motivated state lawmakers to pass the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in 2021, sketching out a vision for an interconnected, 18-million-acre area of rural and natural lands to preserve from development. That’s the equivalent of about 1,200 football fields.

But without any regulatory teeth or mandates, the law remains only that: a vision.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act “encourages,” but doesn't require agencies to prioritize acquiring rights to land within the corridor’s established boundaries. Identifying a need to create incentives for land conservation, the law provides no specific examples for what those incentives might look like.

Purple thistle, a food source for seed-eating birds, grows near the entrance of Split Oak Forest.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
Purple thistle, a food source for seed-eating birds, grows near the entrance of Split Oak Forest.

Not all land in the designated Wildlife Corridor is protected. The 10 million acres that are, don't get any of their conservation protections from the “Wildlife Corridor” itself. Instead, a variety of entities (state, local, federal, private) oversee the range of different conservation protections supposedly safeguarding those 10 million acres of Corridor land from future development.

As the story of Split Oak Forest in Central Florida reveals, those conservation protections aren’t always guaranteed.

Protected “in perpetuity”?

On paper, the nearly 1,700-acre Split Oak Forest sprawling across Orange County’s southern border into Osceola is arguably one of the most protected environmental areas in the state.

At least six different entities are invested in preserving Split Oak’s natural resources, and Orange County voters in 2020 overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment to protect them. Still, in practice, those protections ultimately gave way to development pressures.

On May 1, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved removing conservation protections from 60 acres of Split Oak, so the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) can build a toll road there.

Since 1994, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission serves as land manager for the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area. On May 1, FWC commissioners voted 6-1 to remove part of the forest’s protections in favor of a toll road expansion.
Charles Titterington
/
Central Florida Public Media
Since 1994, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission serves as land manager for the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area. On May 1, FWC commissioners voted 6-1 to remove part of the forest’s protections in favor of a toll road expansion.

The Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area is just one portion of the 6 million acres of “rugged” public land making up FWC’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system. It was supposed to be protected forever, “in perpetuity,” per the terms of Split Oak’s conservation easements: voluntary, legally binding agreements to protect a piece of land’s natural resources by restricting how that land is used.

Originally called a “mitigation park,” Split Oak was set aside for conservation 30 years ago by FWC, Orange and Osceola counties. It was primarily intended to be habitat for the threatened gopher tortoise, to offset damage caused by development to other gopher tortoise habitat in the region.

But now, as CFX prepares to pave a toll road over part of Split Oak Forest, those gopher tortoises will likely be displaced again. FWC issues permits to developers for relocating gopher tortoises. One concern is that some tortoises will be buried alive during development of the area. FWC also issues a “disturbed site” permit, for when that happens.

More than 350 different animal species depend on the gopher tortoise to survive.

Mitigating the mitigation

The Osceola Parkway Extension that CFX plans to build through part of Split Oak Forest is necessary to accommodate the region’s exploding population, according to the highway authority.

Osceola County agrees. Back in 2019, county commissioners there approved a resolution supporting the project. Orange County was also initially on board, but later changed course to reflect voters’ wishes — more than three years after the fact.

Several alternate routes were proposed for the toll road, but as early as 2019, CFX records show going around Split Oak would have been more expensive than going through.

In the next 50 years, the population of Orange, Osceola and Brevard counties is projected to nearly double, climbing to a total 3.8 million residents, according to findings cited by CFX from the East Central Florida Corridor Task Force, which identified concerns about the region’s limited capacity to support its burgeoning population.

Specifically, development along the Orange/Osceola county line is already sprawling past existing concentrations of urban services. The Osceola Parkway Extension could provide a better way for Osceola County to move people north-south to employment centers in Orlando and Orange County, according to CFX’s 2020 environmental impact report.

In late 2019, CFX approved this <a  href="https://www.cfxway.com/agency-information/plans-studies/project-studies/osceola-parkway-extension-pde/#1529005737800-a54c7453-5695">“preferred alternative”</a> route for the Osceola Parkway Extension, which cuts through 60 acres of Split Oak, near the forest’s southern boundary.
Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX)
In late 2019, CFX approved this “preferred alternative” route for the Osceola Parkway Extension, which cuts through 60 acres of Split Oak, near the forest’s southern boundary.

FWC’s recent vote to remove protections from 60 acres of Split Oak Forest hinges on a “mitigation package” proposed by CFX.

The mitigation package includes 1,550 acres of adjacent land that will go into state ownership, plus more than $25 million, most of which will be used for restoration and long-term management of that land. Additionally, CFX is pledging $18 million to select and set aside other lands for conservation.

FWC staff say they hope CFX’s “donations” of funding and land will translate to a “net positive conservation benefit.”

“I think it does meet the threshold of what our duty is, of protecting fish and wildlife for the future, because we're getting additional lands,” FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto said. “We're getting additional lands on top of the 1,550 additional acres.”

But Anderson, who serves as the Florida Native Plants Society’s director of communications and programming in addition to heading up Friends of Split Oak Forest, is skeptical. She says the 1,550 acres CFX is offering won’t compensate for losing any conservation land in Split Oak.

“The problem is, the land was protected for a reason,” Anderson said. “In most cases, conservation land is really hard-won, and they’re not protecting enough of it.”

More specifically, Anderson says, the quality of the land CFX is offering is also problematic.

“I don’t think it’s comparable,” Anderson said.

Wetlands make up much of the land CFX is offering, Anderson says, meaning gopher tortoises won’t be able to dig their burrow homes there. She says they also won’t be able to cross a large canal bisecting part of the land.

“The swap land is being misrepresented as beneficial for Split Oak's Wildlife Corridor connection,” Anderson said.

“This can't be made [into] like habitat. This isn't even contiguous,” resident Katrina Stephenson said at FWC’s April 18 meeting, pointing on a map to a 300-foot-wide canal located on the land CFX is offering.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
“This can't be made [into] like habitat. This isn't even contiguous,” resident Katrina Stephenson said at FWC’s April 18 meeting, pointing on a map to a 300-foot-wide canal located on the land CFX is offering.

In addition to the 1,550 acres of “swap land,” CFX’s mitigation package promises $18 million to help identify and acquire lands in support of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which aims to “prevent fragmentation” of “connected wildlife habitats required for the long-term survival of and genetic exchange amongst regional wildlife populations.”

But Anderson and her fellow forest defenders say that doesn’t add up, since gopher tortoises won’t be able to survive on or even access some of that swampy land adjacent to Split Oak Forest, which is already in the Wildlife Corridor.

At a public meeting in April, one FWC staffer said the intent is for CFX’s restoration funding to make the 1,550 acres “as much like Split Oak” as possible. But Anderson and others are doubtful that plan will work.

In the long run, Anderson says, keeping Split Oak’s currently well-managed land protected would be better than trying to restore new land to replace it. She says she finds CFX’s mitigation plan especially frustrating, given Split Oak’s own origins as a mitigation park.

Effectively, Anderson says, CFX’s offer amounts to little more than “mitigating the mitigation.”

“Mitigation itself is a compromise,” Anderson said. “It’s not like you actually increase the quantity of land that is available … You’re not creating a whole new, ancient, intact ecosystem.”

Split Oak Forest’s diverse range of habitat includes ancient scrub and scrubby flatwoods, setting it apart as the only nearby <a  href="https://www.fnai.org/RefNC_Playlist_map/pdfs/26_SF_SplitOakWEA_2016.pdf">Reference Natural Community Site</a> identified by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI). <a  href="https://www.fnai.org/RefNC_Playlist_map/index.html">FNAI’s reference sites</a> represent the highest quality examples of natural communities in the state.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
Split Oak Forest’s diverse range of habitat includes ancient scrub and scrubby flatwoods, setting it apart as the only nearby Reference Natural Community Site identified by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI). FNAI’s reference sites represent the highest quality examples of natural communities in the state.

The Corridor campaign for conservation

Split Oak Forest and the Florida Wildlife Corridor were both primarily established to protect wildlife, which under Florida law includes all species of animals. But in practice, both Split Oak and the Corridor are about so much more.

“From a biodiversity perspective, it's much broader than just panthers and bears; it's also about ecosystem services,” said University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning (CLCP) Director Tom Hoctor, referencing the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Back in the 1990s, Hoctor led a team of ecologists in creating what is essentially the Corridor’s scientific bedrock: the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN). It’s a GIS model, built from a massive vault of data about Florida’s ecological resources, like natural floodplains and rare species habitat.

Since 1997, Florida's flagship land protection programs, Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, rely on FEGN to prioritize which lands to conserve. FEGN ranks Florida’s most important environmental lands into five priority levels, based on those lands’ natural resources and how likely they are to boost Florida’s statewide, functional ecological connectivity.

But the Florida Wildlife Corridor only includes the top three priority levels: nearly 77 percent of FEGN, according to Hoctor and his team at CLCP. That means the Corridor excludes nearly a quarter of the state’s most important ecological areas to conserve.

At least eight rare plant species, and eleven species of wildlife listed as either threatened or endangered, call Split Oak Forest’s rich ecosystems home.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
At least eight rare plant species, and eleven species of wildlife listed as either threatened or endangered, call Split Oak Forest’s rich ecosystems home.

Hoctor acknowledges the limitations of the name “Wildlife Corridor,” which he says doesn’t fully capture why protecting Florida’s environment is so important.

“It might as well be called Florida's [Wildlife and] Water Corridor,” Hoctor said. “It's just as important to protecting the state's water resources as it is to protecting panthers or bears or other species.”

Essentially, Hoctor says, the Corridor is a “public relations and outreach campaign.” It was dreamt up to attract more attention to the need to protect Florida’s important environmental areas identified by the Ecological Greenways Network, which Hoctor says some felt wasn’t the catchiest name.

“You run into the problem of what's a name that people can understand, versus a name that conveys all the values that this entity produces,” Hoctor said. “So we stuck with ‘Florida Wildlife Corridor,’ despite the potential for interpretation, by some people, that it's ‘just’ a wildlife corridor.”

Today, Hoctor and his team continue updating the FEGN and its underlying databases, including the Florida Natural Areas Inventory’s Critical Lands and Waters Identification Project (CLIP), which will get an extensive update next year.

Right now, there's no clear, publicly-available map outlining how much land in the designated Florida Wildlife Corridor has already been lost to development. But by this summer, Hoctor expects to have a new FEGN update ready, one that will illustrate those losses triggered by development.

“Once it's developed, it's lost,” Hoctor said. “It’s not coming back.”

Already, development is increasingly pressing up against the edges of Split Oak Forest. Now, part of the protected forest will be lost to development of a major toll road.
Charles Titterington
/
Central Florida Public Media
Already, development is increasingly pressing up against the edges of Split Oak Forest. Now, part of the protected forest will be lost to development of a major toll road.

Beyond Split Oak: the value of protecting Florida’s environment

Hoctor says the Corridor deserves to be celebrated, for igniting what he views as a recent “political pendulum swing”: toward a more collective, common understanding of how important it is to protect Florida’s environment from development.

“I think it started the conversation again,” Hoctor said. “I don't think we would have gotten over a billion dollars for land conservation and protection over the last three years, if it wasn't for the Florida Wildlife Corridor.”

But Hoctor also says in Florida, regulation — or the lack thereof — can create a stumbling block to land conservation.

“The fact is, growth management was predominantly regulatory,” Hoctor said. “And we know that that is a problem, for certain elements of the political spectrum … especially when it comes to the perception that there could be laws related to land use that might slow development.”

Hoctor and other longtime environmental experts in Florida point to 2011 as a turning point for the state’s growth management policies. That’s when former Republican Governor Rick Scott signed a state budget eliminating Florida’s land planning agency, and creating the Community Planning Act.

That law removed important checks and balances over local planning decisions, making it harder for citizens to participate in the process, according to 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit pushing for more sustainable growth planning in the state.

“Part of the drive behind loosening standards on development planning at the state level has been the notion that … proper planning for development is somehow bad for the economy,” said Paul Owens, 1000 Friends of Florida’s executive director. “It's actually good for the economy, because it does a better job of protecting our environment, which is really the foundation for a healthy economy in Florida.”

Tourism is one of Florida’s largest economic industries. Visitors contribute $333 million daily to the state’s economy, according to a press release from the governor’s office earlier this year, citing Visit Florida survey data.

Anderson agrees: “We have a certain quality of life because of our environment, not in spite of our environment.”

More than nine miles of marked hiking trails weave through Split Oak Forest, part of the <a  href="https://floridabirdingtrail.com/trail/trail-sections/east-section/split-oak-forest-wea/">Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail system</a>.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
More than nine miles of marked hiking trails weave through Split Oak Forest, part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail system.

Anderson is part of a team studying how conservation easements like Split Oak’s have held up throughout Florida’s history. She says they’re learning how Florida statute makes it easier to remove conservation easements, compared to some other states.

“What we're seeing is [that] agencies are not wholesale removing easements so much as they are amending them,” Anderson said. “Conservation easements can be changed at any agency meeting.”

In Colorado, Maine, and Rhode Island, a judicial proceeding is required before a conservation easement can be “extinguished,” according to a new report published in the Florida International University Law Review.

But in Florida, if conservation easements can be released at any time, for any reason, the lands protected by those easements may become “the path of least resistance for new development,” according to the report.

“If we don't do something different, that's what we're setting up the future to be: a land where conservation land is extremely negotiable,” Anderson said.

That’s why Anderson and many other Central Floridians remain staunchly opposed to CFX’s plan to swap out some protected Split Oak land for other land.

Split Oak’s scrubby flatwood canopy is open, largely consisting of longleaf pine trees spaced widely apart from one another.
Molly Duerig
/
Central Florida Public Media
Split Oak’s scrubby flatwood canopy is open, largely consisting of longleaf pine trees spaced widely apart from one another.

“It's not that the swap land has no ecological value, or no value as conservation land,” Anderson said. “It's that the value is not worth exchanging for the ability to protect all conservation land in the future.”

That’s what Anderson says the saga of Split Oak Forest represents.

“It's not about just Split Oak,” Anderson said. “Split Oak is going to be used as the case study for what happens when toll roads meet protected conservation land in Florida in the future.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media

Molly Duerig
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