ORLANDO, Florida – When governments propose actions that involve sabotaging past public investments, the phrase that comes to mind is clear: mismanagement.
And this is the clear case with the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area, a 1,689 forest created in 1994 when Orange County, Osceola County, and the Florida Communities Trust allocated $8.6 million in taxpayer funds to purchase the property.
The intention was for these lands to constitute a buffer and mitigation zone to compensate for the environmental impact that future developments in the area would cause.
But, after nearly 30 years, the same counties that led this effort are now undertaking an unusual action that not only constitutes a harmful and detrimental environmental impact on the forest, but also the misuse of funds of millions of dollars in public money.
Orange and Osceola Counties have asked that the rules of protection of this ecosystem be changed to make it possible to build a toll road that would be part of the Osceola Parkway. The highway would directly impact 60 acres of the reserve, indirectly damage 100 acres, and hit 77 acres that are a habitat for gopher tortoises. In simple words, the road would fragment a natural area like a large scar. It would harm wildlife and lacerate the natural interconnection of the ecosystems that exist there.
Beyond the environmental impact, this change would mean that citizens would resist supporting natural protection initiatives in fear of future governments deciding to throw away conservation efforts of a place rich in species of flora and fauna.
The proposed road contradicts the reason that this reserve was originally protected in perpetuity. The developers, who have interests in urban projects adjacent to the road, propose that the construction of the road be allowed by offering, in return, 1,550 acres of land as compensation. But these lands – which are located to the north and northwest of the reserve – lack natural value and, even worse, appear zoned as an industrial or residential area.
The irony is that if this transaction is approved, these lands will require millions of dollars in investments in public money to be restored and converted into high-value natural areas. Will citizens be willing to pay additional taxes to restore a property that, in the future, could be destroyed by the administration of the day?
On the other hand, this reserve, apart from the natural and environmental values it provides, is a recreational area vital for the emotional and social health of residents. The reserve is a natural stop for migratory birds, is a refuge for threatened reptiles such as gopher tortoises, and is, above all, a green lung producing clean air for an area currently under tremendous developmental pressure.
Citizens have strongly expressed their opposition to the construction of this road. In fact, 86% of Orange County voters approved a referendum in 2020 that restricted the ability of the Board of County Commissioners to amend, modify, or revoke current restrictions and covenants limiting the use of Split Oak Forest for conservation use.
Changing these conventions sets a bad precedent for the future of conservation in our state and would carry the wrong message that no conservation land is truly protected.