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State agency keeps Split Oak road discussions moving forward

Long-exposure photo, taken at night, from above, of a group of people standing on a road holding flashlights that spell out the words "Save Split Oak."
Charles Titterington
The night before Tuesday's FWC meeting, environmental advocates with Friends of Split Oak Forest say they gathered on Oakridge Road for a "light brigade," using flashlights to spell out the words "Save Split Oak" in this long-exposure photograph.

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted Tuesday on a motion authorizing the agency’s executive director to negotiate with the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) on potentially removing existing conservation easements for Split Oak Forest, a nearly 1,700-acre area of protected land sprawling Orange and Osceola Counties.

CFX wants to build a highway through part of the forest, which is protected from development as a Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA), ever since the state of Florida acquired Split Oak in 1994 for the “conservation, protection and enhancement of natural and cultural resources,” like gopher tortoises and other at-risk wildlife species, according to FWC’s 10-year WEA management plan.

But Split Oak’s environmental protections now hang in limbo, despite Orange County voters’ landslide 2020 decision to preserve them in a charter amendment: a vote county commissioners only recently began to endorse, after reversing their earlier support of the proposed highway.

“Our board recently voted to support the county’s charter protections of Split Oak,” Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson told state commissioners Tuesday. “Good urban planning doesn’t require toll roads, but it does require good investment in parks and green spaces. And that is the future that Orange County residents want and are working for.”

Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson told FWC commissioners Tuesday not to remove Split Oak Forest's protections. "Orange County does not support the release of the perpetual conservation easements, and asks that you deny the Expressway Authority’s land swap scheme," Wilson said.
Molly Duerig
Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson told FWC commissioners Tuesday not to remove Split Oak Forest's protections. "Orange County does not support the release of the perpetual conservation easements, and asks that you deny the Expressway Authority’s land swap scheme," Wilson said.

For nearly a decade, FWC staff say they’ve been discussing the proposed Osceola Parkway Extension with both counties and developers. But those discussions apparently came as a surprise to FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto at Tuesday’s meeting.

“How long have you been engaged in this issue?” Barreto asked FWC Director of Habitat and Species Conservation Melissa Tucker, following her presentation Tuesday on the project’s current status.

“Close to a decade,” Tucker said.

“Really? The agency has? Wow,” Barreto said. “I have never heard about this issue, just so you know … Like, literally, I have no information on this, other than what I’ve been receiving in the last maybe 3 or 4 days.”

Barreto, who was appointed to FWC in 2019 and elected as chairman in 2020, said Tuesday that he supports the agency’s executive director moving forward in conversations about the proposed highway, with the stipulation that the matter must come back before FWC for another vote, before a final decision is made.

“By us voting today, it’s not gonna direct anybody to go cut a deal and that’s it, you know, it’s over. It’s not over. Okay?” Barreto said, addressing one of the 76 people who signed up to speak during Tuesday’s public comment period about Split Oak Forest.

Only a small handful of people spoke in favor of releasing Split Oak from its current environmental protections so CFX can build a highway through the forest. All others were vigorously opposed.

Image of a map showing the location of the proposed highway expansion through Split Oak Forest, a state-protected conservation land spanning nearly 1,700 acres between Orange and Osceola Counties.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
CFX's proposed Osceola Parkway Expansion would cut through 1.3 miles of Split Oak Forest, impacting a total 160 acres of the protected Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA), according to this map from FWC's staff report for Dec. 5.

“Biodiversity loss is a global crisis,” said Michael Adler, who introduced himself to commissioners as a certified ecological restoration practitioner. “A few short decades ago, this region of Florida had so [many] more high-quality natural areas, and they’re mostly gone now.”

Adler said he’s seen some of the 1,550 acres of “compensation lands” CFX is proposing to hand over to the state in exchange for some of the protected Split Oak land.

“Some of them are nice, some of them are not very nice,” Adler said of those acres of land, emphasizing that they likely wouldn’t serve as a fair trade for the well-managed natural lands in Split Oak Forest.

FWC Commissioner Gary Nicklaus echoed Adler’s concern: pointing out that if, for example, CFX is proposing to hand off 1,550 acres of former orange groves, the state would need to spend money to get that land up to par.

At the same time, Nicklaus says, FWC has a duty to explore the potential “net conservation benefit” CFX is proposing for the state.

Tucker said CFX is offering FWC roughly $13 million to restore and manage the 1,550 acres of land it would receive as part of a proposed mitigation package to release conservation easements currently protecting Split Oak Forest.

“We would like to negotiate on that [package],” Tucker told commissioners Tuesday, to a chorus of “NO!” resounding from meeting attendees.

Image of a large crowd of people sitting in a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Molly Duerig
A large crowd gathered Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Orlando for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission final meeting of 2023.

Attendee Rue Dean says he was born and raised in Florida, and often enjoys hiking in Split Oak. During public comment, Dean pointed out that Split Oak Forest itself was originally set aside to mitigate other development.

“We’ve already set this aside for mitigation. This land was set aside in perpetuity, and staff mentioned it multiple times: perpetual conservation. Which means forever, for all time,” Dean said. “Not ‘til we decide to give it away.”

“If you give this [land] away, what’s to say that the next place doesn’t get given away, and the next place, and the next place, ‘til all we have is nothing left?” Dean asked commissioners.

Generally, FWC commissioners expressed they did not currently have enough information to know exactly how to proceed on the proposed Split Oak road.

“The folks that have come today have drawn a really beautiful picture of what we have now, and what you want to preserve. And I get that,” said FWC Commissioner Gary Lester.

What isn’t so clear at this point, Lester says, is what a potential exchange of land for Split Oak might actually look like.

“We just have something that we know is really beautiful, and really beneficial in so many ways,” Lester said, referencing the forest. “If we’re talking about a trade, in effect … I think we need to know what we’d be trading for.”

Ultimately, Commissioner Nicklaus made a motion to authorize FWC’s executive director to negotiate with CFX and the counties on behalf of the agency, before returning the issue back to FWC commissioners for a final vote on how to move forward. Vice Chairman Steven Hudson seconded the motion, and commissioners voted to approve it.

Commissioners said that final vote would likely occur at FWC’s next meeting, currently scheduled for February 2024.

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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