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Open Letter: Aquatic Preserve Boardwalk is Unwise

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Gentlemen and Ladies 

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Having read recently that Hernando County Board of County Commissioners is considering a so-called six-mile boardwalk from the Weeki Wachee Preserve in western Hernando County to Pedersen Park, and having received calls from Hernando Beach residents opposing the idea, here are a few thoughts for your consideration. 

It is understandable how this unique property might seem attractive as a location for Hernando Beach residents who wish to have greater access to it. But, given the Preserve’s history which is directly related to Florida’s decades-long and nationally recognized program to protect its unique natural systems from the inevitable impacts of Florida’s continuing population growth, increased public usage and particularly construction of a six-mile long “boardwalk” large enough to allow significant hiking and biking, is problematic. 

Everyone wants sustained economic growth and people world-wide want to live here, but most folks  already here also want a balance between the loss of natural habitat that’s already occurring and the  need to protect the rest from what will inevitably come with all that “love.” The growing realization is that if we do not preserve a large part of what’s left of Florida’s natural habitat, it will simply be exploited and “used” until it is no more and the very reasons why Florida has become a global destination in the first place will be lost along with it. I’m reminded of the “Tragedy of the Commons”  and the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts”, further defined as, “the way a major negative change,  which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable” (Wikipedia). 

Recent arrivals to our state simply may not appreciate all the hard lessons learned from past decisions and the energy and capital that previous and current residents have invested in implementing the state’s historic environmental protection programs that were carefully evolved as a result over the last  50 years. It remains a continuous struggle to maintain public awareness and appreciation for the critical importance that Florida’s natural systems hold for the state’s economy. Not all land in its natural state,  or that hosts environmentally significant flora and/or fauna, for example, should be considered 

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appropriate for a public facility just because it’s already owned by the public, it’s beautiful, and it’s environmentally bountiful. 

In Florida, public education is ephemeral. Our population is always moving on or dying and being replaced by newcomers. Thus, maintaining effective appreciation for those hard lessons learned is difficult. It is an unfortunate reality about Florida that its demography is continuously renewing and changing while the critical importance of Florida’s natural environment to its economic future is growing as more of it is lost to development. 

The 11,206-acre Weeki Wachee Preserve was purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management  District in 1995 from W. L. Cobb Construction Company for $15.1 million. Six years later in 2001 while I  was executive director at SWFWMD, the property surrounding Weeki Wachee Springs was purchased from the City of St. Petersburg. (For years, ownership of this property by St. Pete was a very painful bone of contention for the residents of Hernando County because the City had acquired it in the 1930s as a potential water supply source.) The springs parcel of about 400 acres was purchased for around  $16 million as part of then-Governor Bush’s “Springs Initiative” using funds from the State’s Florida  Forever program. Today, both acquisitions remain as important components of the state’s strategy to acquire, restore, and protect Florida’s inventory of iconic springs, which are not duplicated in such concentration anywhere else in the world. Florida’s springs are part of its globally unique natural heritage, much as the Grand Canyon is for Arizona. 

The Preserve property was purchased as part of a regional system of conservation lands that extend up to the Crystal River State Park – originally known as the Crystal River Buffer Preserve – consisting of some  27,500 acres and including the southernmost coastal hardwood hammocks in western Florida. The  Weeki Wachee Preserve provides a rich collage of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee  River frontage, portions of Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sandhills. Part of why the acquisition was so important was because it would help in preventing further degradation of the groundwater flowing to Weeki Wachee Springs and because the area and its habitat is well known for its black bear population.  

It is my understanding that, unfortunately, the preserve has been described as just some old leftover mining pits and those who oppose its development as an active public recreation facility are just people who are against everything. I have also heard that some believe if the county can get the six-mile  “boardwalk” permitted, “other facilities” can be constructed later. It’s the old saw, if the camel can get his nose under the tent the rest of him will follow. 

I can’t believe SWFWMD is going to be that naïve. The district has always understood, and likely still does, that there is a necessary responsibility to allow reasonable public enjoyment of its conservation properties, but within the meaning of that reasonableness is the responsibility to not allow the land to be over-utilized to the extent that the original purposes for which it was purchased become obscured and no longer operative. I believe this because, early on, a careful plan for public access and use was developed by SWFWMD for every property it acquired using Florida Forever funds including the Weeki  Wachee Preserve. Therefore, I believe it is not public use, per se, that is causing the growing objections to the county’s proposal. It is the potential concentration and intensity of the proposed use. The main access road from Osowaw Boulevard, for example, is smack dab through the heart of the corridor black bears need for their normal foraging, ranging and sustainment of the specie. Consequently, while the road may be marginally acceptable for maintenance purposes, it would not be acceptable as a main entrance with any anticipated heavy daily usage. 

Perhaps there will be ways to allow a limited degree of public usage in the lake area, but the fact remains that the total land area was purchased and established as a Preserve for very specific reasons that are more critical today than they have ever been, and a six-mile walkway that promotes heavy human hiking and even biking from the mined lakes to Pedersen Park through what can only be described as some very sensitive natural systems is certainly contradictory to those purposes. SWFWMD clearly has an obligation to assure any proposed public uses fall within the constraints contained in the original state authorization to purchase the property using Florida Forever funds. Boardwalks can be found in many state parks but in most cases are carefully constructed to assure minimal impact on natural systems and keep related human incursion and its inevitable impacts to a carefully defined minimum. 

You may know that SWFWMD has partnered on several occasions with Hernando County and the state’s park system to allow public access and use of district-owned public lands within the county such as popular Bayport Park and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. It also instigated and locally funded, through the now dismantled Coastal Rivers Basin Board, the location and construction of an Environmental Education Center on park land just west of Weeki Wachee Springs on Bayport  Road. All these facilities are located fairly close to Hernando Beach for those residents wanting to use them. If greater public usage becomes accommodated within the Weeki Wachee Preserve it will not reduce any pressures of overuse at the other facilities as has been suggested. It will only bring more visitors from out of county to negatively impact another unique and environmentally sensitive natural area of Hernando County. 

There is also a mistaken notion that the reason the Preserve is under this consideration is because grant funding may be available, the land is cheap, i.e., free (SWFWMD already owns it), and it has water features. These are not valid reasons for obviating the original important purposes for which the land was acquired on behalf of Florida’s greater public, Florida’s natural environment, and Florida’s long-term economic future. 

Finally, it should be noted that both houses of the 2021 Florida Legislature just adopted the Wildlife  Corridor Act which would, if signed by the Governor, award $300 million to the Florida Forever land conservation program to expand and protect wildlife corridors. It was passed unanimously by both the  House and Senate! Our leaders in Tallahassee clearly want wildlife corridors expanded, not developed. 

I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts. 

 

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