Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mud-Bogging in a Wildlife Corridor: The Politics of Placement

Fisheating Creek (c) Clyde Butcher

A courtroom divided in half. Those looking for a mud-bogging (an off-road sport where super-charged vehicles are driven through a pit of mud) outdoor recreation arena on the right; those wanting to keep a wildlife corridor for the Florida Panther intact on the left.

The recent Highlands County Board of County Commissioners hearing on the proposed Swamp Hammock highlights an important aspect of conservation activism – how do you appease growth and development, while preserving threatened species and essential habitat? The battle over the rezoning of 1,135 acres from agriculture to agriculture/development has highlighted the struggle preserving wild areas for ecotourism and intrinsic value, and bringing jobs and recreation back after the financial crisis.

The proposed Swamp Hammock recreation area would include mud bogging, camping, a shooting range, and Off Road Vehicle racetracks, just to name a few activities. The problem with this is that it’s surrounded by family farms, and falls between Highlands Hammock State Park and Fisheating Creek, a proposed National Wildlife Refuge[1]. This area acts as a natural wildlife corridor between two conservation areas, and Fisheating Creek has been deemed, by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as essential habitat for the continued existence of the critically endangered Florida panther[2].

Highlands Hammock State Park (c) Chuck Oliver
We are reaching a tipping point in Florida as we run out of conservation lands, and our leaders are failing us. Our wildlife is being hemmed in my subdivisions and strip malls, and cut off (and cut down) by massive highways and poor road design, with 2012 a record breaking year for panther deaths: the most cats killed by cars. Florida Forever, the State’s conservation land acquisition program may be abolished by the Florida Legislature. And on top of it, the Florida Department of Transportation is looking to put even more super highways throughout Florida.

We have the ability to decide how we want Florida to grow. By instilling smart growth principles in our management plans, ensuring that conservation lands are protected, and that wildlife can safely traverse our state, we have the opportunity to set Florida up to be a state that can juggle the complexities of growth and development while retaining the wild aspect that so many people value in living and visiting here.

Swamp Hammock in Highlands County is an example of a poorly placed development within a critical wildlife corridor – something that we all have a say in.

A final hearing on the project will happen on March 26th. We have the power to decide how our wild spaces will be managed.

-- Alexis Meyer, Associate Organizing Representative, Florida Panther Critical Habitat Campaign