A Trip Down the Path of Destruction
No, these are not song lyrics, to my knowledge anyway. But if told melodically, accompanied by some drop d tuned guitar riffs, and some blast beats, the tale of Split Oak Forest could easily be told in a doom metal tune of warning. It is a story of greedy developers trying to get richer by exploiting a piece of land being held in conservation. Perhaps if writing doesn’t work out, a career fronting a band as the Lorax, personified might be the next move for Sandy Sprouts. Just kidding, maybe. But seriously, Split Oak, and by extension, all lands held in conservation are in real trouble. Just so you know, this op-ed won’t be the standard how to garden in Florida piece-this is about a real threat to a real local treasure, which is all but green lighted to be demolished in the name furthering urban sprawl in the south east greater Orlando area. This is a call to action, to protect green spaces here, and worldwide, to prevent the erosion of and invasion into the few wild spaces we set aside to keep them that way. This impacts our descendants, as well as those of us who live here now. The time has never been more right to make a stand.
Way back in 1994 the state of Florida, specifically the Fish and Wildlfe Commission, (FWC) bought the 1,689 acre property in Orange and Osceola counties for the purpose of land mitigation. Land mitigation is land generally bought by developers to replace the natural wildlife habitats they plan to bulldoze and pave over. It is often heard in the term wetland mitigation, which has been in headlines involving large projects with Disney or similar corporate entities. Left to their own devices, free market developers would bulldoze, pave, and build on every single acre if there were no restrictions on sprawl, but luckily for us today, there were forward thinking environmentalists who fought for legislation to be passed that required them to buy land of similar quality elsewhere. There are many success stories of their work in the sunshine state- halting construction of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, the ongoing restoration of the Kissimmee river, and the Everglades.
Split Oak was purchased as mitigation land, having high value to the wild community because of a wide range of habitats. Part of mitigation is that the land the developers are forced to put aside is that it be of the same nature as what they are building on. Subdivisions are platted with little regard for those inhabitants who have called it home long before we arrived. Humans demolish entire ecosystems, then import tons of building materials to the razed sites, and name the streets after what used to be there. Different animal species make use of different habitats and food sources found in those unique microcosms, so if the land was marshy they were building on they would need buy marshy land to replace it with, and so on.
Before this publication, we did some research into the history of Split Oak WEA, and discovered a paper authored by Valerie Anderson that explored at length, not only the history of , but also the ecology, hydrology, and describes in detail the flora and fauna that call the area home, and also how those communities have been affected by human activities. A short 192 pages later, and we were all caught up. Split Oak was set aside for the wild creatures to have somewhere to call home because it has a variety of habitats, hence it has the ability to support a wide range of plants and animal species.
Currently, the preserve is besieged by developers who have decided it would make a great scenic byway, a green blur beside thousands of future commuters. Why future commuters? For that matter, why Split Oak? To find out more, we embarked on a chilly Saturday morning on a hike led by Dave Wegman, who as it turns out, is the voice of the recorded announcements at Orlando International Airport, and one of many dedicated Friends of Split Oak Forest. We learned of the “Route of Destruction Hike” from a Facebook posting in a local gardening group we are members of, The Dirty Fingernails Club of Central Florida. Not really sure what to expect other than some exercise and a little education, we set out.
Mr Wegman provided the group, numbering around twenty or so, with maps of the hike, complete with highlighted stopping points, and adorable little tortoise pins to wear. He took us, hiking south away from the parking area towards where the road is proposed to be built, stopping to answer any questions along the way. “Right here is the center of the three hundred foot corridor they want to put in. That’s three football fields!” He emphasized.
It seems excessive, divided highways of 50′ each, an intermodal corridor, and plenty of right of way for utility and infrastructure work. Moreover, the road, at this time goes to nowhere- it solves no existing traffic problems. We learned as we walked, that the as-yet-unbuilt community of Sunbridge was the terminus of the new expressway. Sunbridge, brought to you by Tavistock Corporation, the same folks who created Lake Nona is planned to rise out of the pastures of Deseret Ranches, up undeveloped Nova road in eastern Osceola and Orange counties. Furthermore, the road is being billed as the “Osceola Parkway Extension”, and you may have a few guesses to figure out what parkway it does. Not. Connect. To.
Truly, the whole concept is to provide a convenient route to and from a speculated community that does not exist at this time, at the lowest cost to shareholders. The simple truth is, there are proposed alternatives that would spare the park, but the county commissioners who are tasked with regulating all this but the same commissioners are directly on the Central Florida Expressway’s board memberships, or have received contributions from this group. There is very fragrant breaches of ethics involved here, and clear conflicts of interest.
This group that stands to benefit from allowing this violation of land trust agreements set in place years ago is the same ones who are voting to get it passed. There is no impartiality, only greed. Split Oak Forest was recognized decades ago as a place that Florida needs to keep some semblance of wilderness. The variety of habitats found in the park support critically endangered species and provide shelter and everything they need to support life. The preserve is vital as a wildlife corridor, a kind of animal highway connecting the Saint John’s river basin to Lake Okeechobee and all points between. Threatened populations of Florida panther, gopher tortoise and scrub jays all use the property, as well as more common whitetail deer, turkey, and coyotes.
It may not be settled with empty strip malls, dollar stores, and dental offices, but Split Oak is already a vibrant community, a vital ecological metropolis located within a few minutes drive of any of our own back yards. Something already lives there. Is it our duty to evict animals and destroy their homes to build our own edifices, only to exclude them then too? Or is it our calling that we should take up this calling, and say enough! Build it somewhere else. We have a responsibility as stewards of the land to ensure places like this exist for future generations. This could be, as Dave put it, Lake Nona’s central park. It is our duty to stand up for what’s right, corporate profits be damned.
We need to get involved when, where, and how we can. A simple share on social media can ignite the fire of a thousand demonstrators, petition signers, phone call makers. The more people speak out against this unchecked urban sprawl, the more the voiceless have something to say. The more of us that hit like, share, that ring their congressmen, that shine a light on this perilous situation, the less they will be able to pass back room deals out of the public eye. these commissioners responsible for eroding away the bedrock of environmental constitution have names and addresses. Just as Tavistock can buy them, we can force them into the light to explain their actions, and face the consequences of unhappy constituents, such as being voted out and replaced with more environmentally conscious legislators. People who actually care. People like Dave Wegman and Valerie Anderson.
We need to remind them that they are public servants who work to serve our interests, not shareholders. We are not beholden to help them collect green pieces of paper with serial numbers or illuminated pixels that represent those notes of currency. We have to be able to sleep at night, knowing we have done what we could. One like. One share. A butterfly effect, a ripple, a wave. That’s what it takes, so please be sure to contribute at least this small act. This piece is a special op-ed we have created to educate, and inform, but at Sandy Sprouts, we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk, so be sure to follow us on FB, IG, and tell your friends. The forest is counting on you.