| By Kristin Urban
Econ River Wilderness Area. Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area (Split Oak). Wekiva and Econ Rivers. These are precious natural lands that were discussed during the IDEAS For Us June IDEAS Hive discussion, “Protecting Natural Lands in Florida.” As the panelists continually express, if we don’t step up now, who will and when? If we don’t hold our officials accountable, who will? If we don’t take a look at the Florida Constitution and use it to fight for conservation, no one will. Oftentimes, in the world of activism, it is easy to feel powerless. But these six panelists – rather, these six Eco-Warriors – address why even one voice is a powerhouse.
They came together to talk about conserving and protecting the natural lands within Florida, with an overarching and recurring message that one individual person can make a difference. But Kim Buchheit, one of the panelists (and who is running for Seminole County Commissioner District 3) shared a quote saying “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.”
Beginning with the first panelist is Dr. Patrick Bohlen, a beaming light guiding the path to conservation. He is the Director of Landscape and Natural Resources and The Arboretum, and a biology Professor at the University of Central Florida. Dr. Bohlen has pointed out that Florida saw decades of work from people on both sides of the aisle, and plenty of activism.Florida has 29% of protected lands, mainly state or nationally designated, as seen in the blue and orange pie graph.
The other smaller sections of the graph are owned by local government or bought by conservation groups, like Conserve Florida, or are conservation easements (private ownership but restriction of what can be done – like a rancher might set aside 500 acres for conservation). Florida was an area of the leadership of conservation with buying lands to protect, but this was before the recession. Now, the trend seems to be aimed towards sprawling development.
Dr. Bohlen focused on how Florida is within a designated biodiversity hotspot, and the future predicted trend of development within Florida. But it is also a biodiversity hotspot because of development. Over 70% of the region has to be developed to be considered a “hotspot.”
The North American Coastal Plain easily falls into this requirement, as it contains 1,816 endemic vascular plants and 85.5% of the historical habitat has been leveled for development. This has resulted in the original 92 million acres of Longleaf Pine habitat to now be only 4.3 million acres of woodland. In the Florida urbanization graphic shared by Dr. Bohlen, from 1,000 Friends of Florida, the current status of Florida Conservation lands are in green while the red are developed lands. It is predicted for the next 20 to 30 years Florida is going to see a trend of growth of development (as shown in the 2070 predicted graph). 30% or more of the land will be in an urban setting. As Dr. Bohlen points out, that means the parts that were put aside as natural areas and buffers will be right up against urbanization.
That will see a lot of consequences in terms of ecological interactions between those parcels, especially in terms of animal species “gene flow” (or “any movement of individuals, and/or the genetic material they carry, from one population to another”. Now, we see gene flow between animals and plants going between conservation areas. But with more development, there will be more fragmentation and isolation. Wildlife corridors which link pieces of land together and allow for genetic flow between species, will become increasingly critical as isolation becomes more common.
Making natural areas and conserved lands accessible to the urban population is key for now and the future of Florida. This is what Dr. Bohlen says is very important, as he points out people will become less and less connected to natural areas, especially if they are moving to Florida. Natural areas are a great way to educate what wild Florida actually is. If we don’t have these conserved areas to act as educational resources for people, it will be difficult to inspire conservation or get people to even understand the need to conserve. More conservation will be needed within urban areas, even now within urban landscaping, we can conserve ten times more than what we are actually doing.
As an extension of discussing the “why” it is important to protect natural lands, we have the second panelist, Anh Volmer. Volmer is active within the League of Women Voters Orange County Natural Resources Committee and participates in the Orange County Charter Review Committee meetings. She holds a certificate in Fundraising and Development Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership at Rollins College. She serves as the secretary and treasurer of Right to Clean Water Political Committee, with Chuck O’Neil serving as the chair.
Volmer says people tend to be detached from the natural area and that many people who grow up here or move to Florida see algae blooms and dirty water and just assume it is a normal occurrence. But The Right to Clean Water Political Committee advocates for the passing of Charter Question number one on the November 3, 2020 ballot. What does the charter concern? The right to clean water.
The Charter is broken up into two distinct parts: Giving rights to the beloved Wekiva and Econlockohatche Rivers, and all other natural bodies of waters within Orange County. The second, to ensure citizens in Orange County have a right to clean water. Right now, Volmer urges “the system within place is designed to regulate the pollution – and not to stop it – and allow harm to the environment. That’s where we are now.”
During the panel, Volmer used the polluted history of Lake Apopka to demonstrate how powerful granting rights to bodies of water could be. From the 1920s-1950s Lake Apopka was considered an anglers paradise, with 40 miles of shoreline. But Lake Apopka ended up being the dump of sewage from citrus processing plants and fertilizer runoff from muck farms filled the lake. Legally. Just for a moment, imagine if Orange County residents had the Charter Amendment 1, so Lake Apopka would’ve had the right to exist, and citizens could have sued the corporations for polluting. Maybe this could have saved wildlife, the lake itself, and possibly helped those people who depended on the lake.
But now several decades and hundreds of millions of dollars spent later, it could take 100 years or more to get water clean enough for wildlife to thrive. Right now, the widemouth bass numbers still need to recover and there are fish adversaries associated with eating certain fish from Lake Apopka. Even though the idea of it may initially seem outlandish, granting the natural bodies of water rights is a way to protect them, and the flora, fauna, and people that depend on them.
The third panelist of the evening was Linda Rossel and she shared how a dedicated, committed grassroots activism can help protect already protected natural lands, when it is under threat, through her work with the Econ River Wilderness Area. Rossel owns a website development company and is an online marketer. She decided to use her skillset to fight against a land swap proposed for the near-pristine Econ Wilderness Area. The Econ Wilderness Area, located in the Florida Wildlife Corridor just near UCF and is paid for by taxpayers through self-taxation in 1994.
It is a small nearly pristine 238 acre protected wilderness area with over 49,000 annual visitors, and home to animals and native plants. It was assumed that its designation as a protected wilderness area for conservation and preservation in perpetuity would be the end of the story, with no further fight needed. But it wasn’t. It was up for a land swap exchange regarding a stripped piece of land (667 acres). This swap, a smaller piece of land for a bigger one, gave the illusion to people – including some of Seminole County’s Commissioners – that it was a good deal. Instead, a campaign was needed to fight against a land swap. Rossel shares how Save Econ, a grassroots group formed specifically to fight the land swap, ultimately saved the Econ River Wilderness Area.
In order to make the public aware of what was happening and notify county commissioners of their opinion, Save Econ created a highly targeted campaign along with a group of dedicated volunteers. Rossel says creating a brand and a website with petition forms (which had an automatic reply form notifying all five Seminole County Commissioners when the petition was signed) was key to show the commissioners what the people wanted.
Save Econ also posted signs at the park, made personal calls to commissioners, and volunteers handed out fliers at the park (with QR codes) directing them to the petition. Rossel says this campaign went on for three solid months and was an enormous task. But a fruitful one, as over 10,000 petitions signed and the Econ Wilderness River Area was saved.
Her parting advice for those engaging in activism? She says, first and foremost is to not give up, even if it looks like you are going to lose. Second: Look at the big picture. It is important to distill all the information and make the right decisions at the right time, and to coordinate a motivated group of volunteers and experts. She says to get all the facts of issue and fact check those facts, while working daily towards your goal. Rossel says
“a daunting task is a daunting task but with help of a good team that is motivated and works hard you can make a difference”
From triumph to legal documents, Kim Buchheit takes us on a much needed walk through the Florida Constitution to show us that it really isn’t all that scary and where the loopholes exist. Buchheit’s educational background is in geography, where she studied mapping and ended up starting her own business in 1991. She loves researching legal matters dealing with land. She became involved in activism when some of the cases involved recurring issues of conservation easements being released or weaknesses or lack of protection like what Rossel was discussing. She became motivated to be more involved, and is now running for Seminole County Commissioner District 3.
Buchheit decided to impart this wisdom to activists and aspiring activists:
“Don’t let legal documents scare you”.
She says the reason why protections aren’t what they seem to be or what we think they are all comes down to words and us getting over the fear of reading statues and reading legal documents. However, what is illuminating are some loopholes and weaknesses that have been found. You can read the specific regulations Buchheit brought up here, and check the sources at the bottom, but here are the highlights that she focused on, along with a couple of definitions.
Definitions and References For The Legal Novice:
Bundle of sticks: ownership of property that the landowner owns the entire bundle of sticks and has full control of property with exception of the government that has some jurisdiction control, such as the rights to remove timber or minerals or utility easements that allow utility companies to run across property with installations, or various landowners can go on someone’s property to access their property. Buchheit reminds us that deeds are just documents with the words that hold terms and conditions of how the land can be used and by who.
So the first part of this statute seems like the land will remain pretty untouched and protected. But then the extra language thrown in, as Buchheit cautions, “this is where the loopholes come in and how these protections can be penetrated. So while meant to be forever, it can be amended at any time.”
It doesn’t end here. A statute known as 704.06 and (11) were added around 1997, creating a very large loophole that allows conservation easements to be penetrated:
So what are we talking about here? These protections are not as hard shelled perhaps as one would have thought. Weaknesses are somewhat convenient and exploited. Buchheit points out that there is some good news, as people are noticing these exploitations. Plus, we have warriors: people who are energizing grassroots movements to swell, create political pressure, and get elected officials to protect natural lands. People are the key to these protections and standing up and fighting for them is important because they don’t just survive overtime. Buchheit ended her discussion by leaving us with the thought:
The fifth panelist of the evening was Valerie Anderson. She is a Community Leader, Director of Communications and Programming of the Florida Native Plant Society and President of Friends of Split Oak talks about Split Oak and why the fight to protect it isn’t just about the conserved area – it is about protecting all conservation lands in Florida. On the November ballot this year, Orange County residents will see a proposed county charter amendment, which would put additional preservation protections on Split Oak. Those protections would stop an expressway cutting right through the protected Forest.
Anderson says Friends of Split Oak has been working on this for three years. Anderson has spoken to the people who originally put those protections in place and designed them so it would be protected in perpetuity as stated in the binding Grant Award Agreement. Protections include restrictions, public ownership, and conservation easements. The proposed road would serve the new development already on Deseret Ranches by Tavistock Development, a development firm known for destroying forests and natural lands to create new development projects.
Within the map above, you can see the proposed road that goes through Split Oak: the green line is the preferred area by the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFEA). The blue line represents the worst case scenario, cutting Split Oak in half which would destroy the land irreversibly. The green line represents the continued destruction of Split Oak, as precious conservation lands would still be impacted from this major roadway. The yellow line is the alternative route that would avoid Split Oak but the CFEA is not considering this option due to an increased project development cost, amounting to an additional $140 million.
Roads beget sprawl. This is not sprawl alleviating. The Poinciana Parkway connects sprawl to transportation infrastructure, and is an example of some public need for transportation infrastructure. The expressway planned right through Split Oak does not have any existing need, as there are only plans for development. It does not constitute a current public good. So, what happens when the state of Florida is more developed than it actually is? We are setting up for a worse problem in 2060. Therefore, acting now to defend current conservation land is important for the present and the future.
The Kissimmee Chamber of Commerce has asked “What do you want Valerie?” Anderson has replied “you can walk a bill through the legislature that would prevent this, a new toll road or any new development through public lands through the State of Florida, and I will go away.” Their reaction was to laugh and tell her that wasn’t possible. That puts Floridians in a place where new conservation in the legislature is unlikely, so we need to defend what is in place. Split Oak is protected by every possible legal protection we have in the State to defend conservation land. This is minus any ephemeral protection (historical sites, burial grounds). Anderson leaves her lecture with this chilling truth:
The sixth panelist is Professor Rachel E. Deming, a leader in fighting corporations. She is an Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental and Earth Law Clinic. She has gone out of her way to help small nonprofits such as Mustard Seed, Fleet Farming, and Friends of Split Oak. Her background is impressive, but to be succinct, her research interests include opportunities for collaborative environmental governance between the public and private sectors, evaluating state constitutions and common law as the basis for protecting natural resources, and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
She practiced law in New York for over 25 years, and was appointed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to serve on its Environmental Financial Advisory Board from 2005-2011. Professor Deming also served as chair of a workgroup examining market recognition for environmental performance. More recently, she has been at the Barry Law School, where her first client was the League of Women Voters in 2013 fighting what Deming called the “sale of surplus conservation lands,” which came under the Rick Scott administration. Professor Deming says there is no doubt the Rick Scott administration negatively changed the tide of conservation within Florida. Before then, there was continual bipartisan support and funding for these initiatives.
Professor Deming points out that the people of Florida seemed to adapt a sense of acceptance, by looking to Florida regulations and saying “well that’s the law.” But Professor Deming is here to say that actually it isn’t.
In 1998 a very important constitutional amendment was added to the Florida Constitution to protect past conservation achievements from unraveling, called the Florida Forever Conservation Lands. The slide below shows the greater part of the amendment, but you can see the whole thing here. But since then, statues and regulations were added that allowed loopholes, like statute – 706.44(11) and 62-818.015 regulating linear facilities through conservation lands and 62-818.016 regulating exchanges of conservation lands. However, these must be interpreted in terms of 1998 constitutional amendment. Rachel emphasizes that “this amendment is the law of the land and straightforward and simple.”
At one point during her contribution as a panelist, Professor Deming looks to the camera and strongly calls for action:
Split Oak is a good example of the legislature failing to uphold the Florida Constitution. Professor Deming says if we can’t get courts acknowledging conserved lands in perpetuity, then we have a serious problem. Then we will need to get people in who will acknowledge what the people have said they want our state to be. It is clear what is being proposed in Split Oak is an attempted end around this provision.
Professor Deming says that “Nobody gives the chance to raise questions to county officials but as we go into this next election, I would ask Orange County commissioners and maybe Osceola County commissioners ‘what does disposed of mean to you?’ Did you take an oath to uphold the Florida Constitution? Especially ask Betsy VanderLey, who is up for reelection.” Since this discussion, Besty VanderLey lost the Orange County Commissioner seat to environmental activist Nicole Wilson. Articles surfaced that the public confirmed that Split Oak and her campaign being funded by Tavistock and other developers.
She leaves with this message, making it clear that the Florida Constitution needs to be upheld: “we elect our legislatures and hold them accountable to uphold the Florida Constitution. We have some great conservation legislation but we got to uphold it.”
So, what can you do to protect natural lands? Remember that a mosquito can create a lot of trouble – and you can create some good trouble, too. Joining a group concerning a topic you are passionate about opens up the gateway to new possibilities, and staying committed and dedicated to the fight is important. Don’t feel overwhelmed – because when a voice speaks up, others unite behind it to help save these precious lands. To get started, take a look at the organizations the panelists are part of, or referenced during their discussion. Donate, follow, like, share, and volunteer to make a difference to protect Florida conservation lands.