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State agency to address Split Oak’s future at Tuesday meeting

Image of a nature trail sprawling out into the wildlife of Split Oak Forest, a nearly 1,700 acre public conservation land in Orange and Osceola Counties.
Courtesy Dave Wegman
A hiking path on Split Oak Loop, part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, sprawls out north in this 2017 photograph of Split Oak Forest.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will consider next steps this week for Split Oak Forest, a nearly 1,700-acre area of wildlife habitat in Orange and Osceola Counties that could become a construction site for a future highway expansion proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX).

Should CFX’s proposed Osceola Parkway Extension move forward per current plans, it will have been against the wishes of Orange County voters, who in 2020 overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment protecting Split Oak’s status as a public conservation land.

Despite that landslide 2020 decision, Orange County commissioners didn’t stand with voters to oppose CFX’s proposed roadway until Nov. 28, when commissioners voted 6-1 to do so during FWC’s next meeting. The decision reverses the county’s earlier support of the project in 2019.

The only ‘no’ vote against reversing Orange County’s stance came from District 2 Commissioner Christine Moore, who described the proposed roadway expansion as “a good deal” for the county.

Removing Split Oak’s current state protections would require agencies to agree on mitigation strategies for a “net positive conservation benefit,” including restoration funding and donations of other conservation land, according to FWC.

Current project plans indicate the roadway would impact about 160 acres of Split Oak Forest, but Moore says Orange County could receive about 1,500 acres of additional conservation land in exchange.

“We don't want to be this super urban county. We want to retain some of our passive lands, our environmental treasures, our suburban areas,” Moore said. “And so, to me, getting some of that out into Osceola County was going to then slow down some of the development pressures up in my district.”

For Moore, not much has changed since four years ago, when she first voted in favor of building the road through Split Oak. Back then, Moore says, she hadn’t yet been appointed to her current position on CFX’s governing board: a role Moore says did not impact her vote last week.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings also currently sits on CFX’s board, serving as chairman. Although Demings initially voted for the road in 2019, he reversed course last week.

The state originally acquired Split Oak Forest in 1994 to protect “vital habitat” for the threatened gopher tortoise, like the one pictured here, as well as members of other at-risk wildlife species, according to FWC's 10-year management plan for the public conservation land.
Michael D. Snyder Photography
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Courtesy Michael D. Snyder
The state originally acquired Split Oak Forest in 1994 to protect “vital habitat” for the threatened gopher tortoise, like the one pictured here, as well as members of other at-risk wildlife species, according to FWC's 10-year management plan for the public conservation land.

For Friends of Split Oak President Valerie Anderson, the situation playing out in Orange and Osceola Counties is just one example of a much larger problem in Florida, where she says leaders routinely fail to protect the state’s most precious environmental assets.

“There is no other way to protect conservation land in the state of Florida than the methods used to protect Split Oak — that at every single juncture, the people in power and the people supporting the people in power are looking at the protections and going, ‘Oh, yeah, I think we could probably get around that,” Anderson said.

It’s a concern echoed by many other advocates, including Anna Pepper, an Orange County resident who spoke during a public comment period at the Nov. 28 meeting.

“There's many areas throughout Florida that are protected with a tapestry of conservation protections like this. If a toll road [is] allowed to dissect it, it establishes a dangerous precedent in dismantling the protections elsewhere,” Pepper said.

Acknowledging residents’ environmental concerns, Commissioner Moore said Central Florida still must address other critical issues, like the region’s ever-growing population and resulting transportation needs.

“I think it's challenging when you look at an issue just from one point of view,” Moore said. “From a purely conservation issue, I understand wanting to save [the forest]. But we also have to look at transportation and having sufficient housing for our people, so that they can actually afford to live someplace. So for me, when I as an elected official had to balance out all those interests, I was for the road.”

Image of skyblue lupine, a flower native to Florida, including the Split Oak Forest.
Valerie Anderson
Skyblue lupine grows naturally in Florida, including the Split Oak Forest, where it is pictured above.

Orange County resident Kelly Semrad began to cry on Nov. 28 when she introduced commissioners to her daughter, who isn’t yet four years old, during the public comment period. Semrad said she named her daughter Forest Hope, in honor of citizens’ ongoing fight to protect Split Oak Forest.

“Please send somebody to speak on behalf of us [at the FWC meeting],” Semrad pleaded commissioners as she choked back tears. “I'm asking today — I'm actually begging, that you please, honor our charter.”

“It's your job to protect our rights. It's what you were elected to do. Stand with us. Protect that forest,” Semrad said, finishing her comments to resounding applause.

For Split Oak and other conservation lands primarily managed by FWC, the state agency analyzes the potential to designate any part of the area as “surplus lands,” which could then be released from environmental protections and used for another purpose.

But according to FWC’s ten-year management plan for Split Oak Forest, “all portions of the area are being managed and operated for the original purposes of acquisition, and remain integral to the continued conservation of important fish and wildlife resources, and continue to provide quality fish and wildlife resource based public outdoor recreational opportunities. Therefore, no portion of the [Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area] is recommended for potential surplus review.”

Anderson says she appreciates FWC’s “great management” of Split Oak so far: from protecting rare and threatened wildlife, to controlling invasive species and wildfire risk in the forest. Now, she just wants the agency to continue that conservation work.

Anderson says she and other environmental advocates will attend the FWC meeting “to show that we are all in support of them protecting this property that they committed to protect.”

FWC’s meeting at the Hyatt Regency Orlando on International Drive begins at 8:30am on Tuesday, December 5.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for WMFE and WMFV.

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