Interstate-4 is, and has been, one of the greatest impenetrable barriers to wildlife in central Florida. In the 1990s, when environmental stakeholders were working with the Florida Department of Transportation on I-4 long-term improvements, some possible connections across the highway for water and wildlife flow were discussed, and one of the primary requirements was for the state to have permanent ownership or easements on both sides of the highway so that their investment in such linkages would be long-lasting.  One of these important ecological linkages is the Green Swamp-Peace River connector across I-4 near Lakeland.

The GreenSwamp is one of the most important areas within the state for conserving both water and wildlife.  The GreenSwamp essentially serves as “Central Florida’s water tank” with very high groundwater surface pressure that results in four rivers emerging from the area.  That was one of the main reasons the area was long ago recognized as an Area of Critical State Concern.  Yet, the Florida Department of Environmental protection is considering selling a set of large parcels critical to the GreenSwamp within the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area.

These parcels were bought as part of the Green Swamp Florida Forever project and serve to help limit growth and development in the Green Swamp area between Orlando, Lakeland, and Tampa while also protecting wetlands, recharge areas, wildlife habitat, and providing key segments of ecological corridors both within the Green Swamp and connecting to other conservation lands in the Kissimmee River and Peace River basins. Potentially developing these parcels will both end major connectivity plans for the entire region while significantly impacting efforts to protect this Area of Critical State Concern.

More specifically, the Hilochee parcels proposed for surplus are also essential for completion of ecological linkages within a statewide corridor system called the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.  In particular, Hilochee parcel #1 is absolutely essential to complete a functional ecological linkage between the Peace River headwaters and GreenSwamp.

The retrofitting of I-4 to allow for functional wildlife and water crossing is a key part of both Green Swamp conservation and protection of a statewide corridor system.  The Hilochee parcels in state ownership are critical for providing the opportunity to build these crossing structures when improvements and reconstruction/widening proceed along the GreenSwamp segment of I-4 in the future. Both bear and panther tracking telemetry studies have helped to document how this segment of I-4 presents a movement barrier for wildlife.  Traffic volumes and road width make safe crossing extremely difficult or even impossible for these and many other species of wildlife.  Without the Hilochee parcels, several of these planned wildlife and water crossing structures across I-4 will not be constructed.

We think the state should look long and hard at its past land planning and conservation efforts before it sells these critical pieces of water and wildlife land that are already in place for the long-term protection of the region.  In theory, surplus of parcels that are absolutely, clearly not significant for conservation may be justified, but very defensible and comprehensive criteria should be carefully applied before determining whether any such current public conservation lands are not needed.  And it should be absolutely clear that the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area parcels not only have conservation value, they are ESSENTIAL for regional and state conservation priority protection.

You can tell the state that too.  The Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC) that will decide on which parcels to sell is meeting next Friday the 13th, at 9:00 a.m. in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Conference Room A, The Department of Environmental Protection, 3900 Commonwealth Boulevard, in Tallahassee.

You can also contact members of ARC to weigh-in on keeping the right lands for conservation of the Green Swamp, the Peace River headwaters and their connectors.  Many of them are state employees and can be found starting here.

Tell ARC to keep the FWC Hilochee tracts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6.  Protect them now or they’ll be gone forever.

Map of Hilochee Parcels

Photo credit Carlton Ward