After meeting Friday, April 24 with Audubon’s Charles Lee and others concerned with protecting conservation lands in the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Ken Frink, Director of the district’s Operations, Lands & Resource Monitoring Division announced that the 47 acres of recovering Scrub Jay habitat at Halpata would be removed from the surplus list.
Frink also indicated that Pine Island, a conservation tract in the Braden River in Manatee County would be recommended for transfer to the county (which is actively managing the island) instead of surplussing the tract. Other tracts in Hillsborough County, including tracts adjacent to the Alafaya River will be considered for transfer to Hillsborough County rather than being surplused and sold on the open market.
While this is a good outcome for those tracts of land, others still hang in the balance. Over 1,500 acres of land in the Green Swamp is proposed for surplus with the district retaining a conservation easement. For most of this acreage, provided that the conservation easement is appropriately worded, this will make little difference as much of the surrounding land is already held in conservation easements rather than owned outright by SWFWMD and other state agencies.
However, two tracts totaling 338 acres are located immediately adjacent to the Van Fleet State Trail. Converting those tracts from fee ownership by the district to a conservation easement will deprive the public of the ability to utilize those tracts. Particularly because this trail is part of a trail complex where $60 million is being spent in this year’s budget to complete the “Coast to Coast” trail, it is inappropriate and short-sighted to remove the possibility that these tracts can be used in the future by the growing recreational constituency on the Van Fleet State Trail.
Other tracts, such as 39 acres just north of SR 44 at Flying Eagle Preserve cry out for an answer “WHY” when it comes to surplus. If the district’s mission is truly “Water Resources” then retaining tracts such as the piece of Flying Eagle at risk seems to be a straightforward and rational decision. The Flying Eagle tract is at least 99% deep wetlands consisting of cypress swamp and open prairie marsh. See the tract by clicking here.
Even though the district is proposing to surplus the tract with a conservation easement, its difficult to understand what a private buyer would want it for – unless it is to later challenge the easement and the regulatory process with a controversial effort to fill and develop it. This tract (and other similar ones) ought to be kept in the district’s inventory – we will fight for that.
The District’s Governing Board will meet on May 19 to reach a final decision on this round of surplus.
Audubon Florida staff will be meeting with District staff and contacting board members in advance of the board’s final decision.