by Deborah Green, Orange Audubon Society
Marty Sullivan, League of Women Voters Orange County, Natural Resources Committee
Valerie Anderson, Friends of Split Oak Forest
and other members of the Split Oak coalition
What is Split Oak Forest?
It is a 22-year-old permitted mitigation bank straddling the Orange County- Osceola County line east of SR 15/Narcoossee Road. It has a rich variety of habitats and plant and animal species. It has been well-burned and invasive species controlled with considerable effort. Split Oak serves as a recipient site for Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). It’s mitigation status is a bit complicated: the entire Orange County portion is a single mitigation bank and the Osceola County side is a patchwork of individual mitigation projects.
It is currently managed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as a Wildlife and Environmental Area, thus its official name: Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area (SOFWEA).
Who owns it? It was the first foray into Orange and Osceola Counties jointly conserving land. It’s managed by FWC. It has several layers of protection: it is covered, in part, by three conservation easements, two held by FWC and one held by South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD); it is also covered entirely by deed restrictions held by the Florida Communities Trust (FTC). It was conserved in part with FWC Gopher Tortoise Mitigation Program funds to offset development impacts to Gopher Tortoises along with funding from the FCT, Orange County and Osceola County conservation land acquisition funds.
In 1991, Osceola County and Orange County respectively approved a partnership application in cooperation with the FWC, then the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, which was submitted to the FCT, formerly within the now defunct Department of Community Affairs, now housed within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to acquire SOFWEA. Subsequently, the FCT approved the partnership application in 1992. On March 15, 1994, Orange and Osceola Counties approved an inter-agency agreement between the counties and FWC. This agreement established the FWC as the managing agency of SOFWEA, with the purpose of establishing the area as a Mitigation Park to protect vital habitat for the gopher tortoise.
What is the official designation of the land?
It’s a Mitigation Park to protect vital habitat for gopher tortoises and Florida scub-jays. It’s a mitigation bank that offset wetland impacts from both private and public entities including the Orange County Convention Center. It is listed among the Orange County Green PLACE sites (County-owned natural lands). As of May 2007 the County had sold 88 acres of credits out of 206. The mitigation bank’s goals are focused on uplands and thus “most restoration work on the bank has been done to return a natural fire interval to the landscape. Some hydrologic work has been done such as ditch filling but details are not known.” (ibid p.67)
How big is Split Oak? 1,689 acres of regionally significant wildlife habitat. Split Oak is also part of a 3000 acre plus ecological corridor of both private and publicly conserved lands made up of Moss Park and Isle of Pine Preserve. It was originally supposed to be larger.
How many acres of the Preserve are directly affected? It varies based on the road’s alignment.
How much is indirectly affected? A road going through SOFWEA, even if bridged or with adequate wildlife underpasses, will create a barrier for wildlife, public access, and management practices. For the southern portion, it will make it very difficult for fire management, as several sites on the area are fire dependent. These developments are going to restrict management activities, like invasive plant control as well as wildlife movements.
What plants and animals are designated protected, and at what level of designation?
- Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as Threatened. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises. Gopher Tortoise burrows provide habitat for over 300 different species including some that are federally threatened. Among these are the Florida Mouse, Podomys floridanus (recently de-listed), Florida Pine Snake, Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus (threatened), Gopher Frog, Lithobates capito (recently de-listed), Eastern indigo snake, Drymarchon corais couperi (Federally-designated Threatened).
- Florida Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is also protected as a Threatened species by the Federal Endangered Species Act and as a Federally-designated Threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule
- Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) has no federal listing status but is considered of critical conservation concern by all state agencies, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners in Flight, and conservation organizations.
- Sherman’s Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger shermani) is listed as a Species of Special Concern on Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species List.
- Florida Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis pratensis) is listed as a state Threatened on Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species List.
Is the developer (Central Florida Expressway Authority) entitled, or will it require variances/rezoning/Comp Plan amendments? According to the Orange and Osceola counties’ Recreation Master Plan, the following activities are allowed: hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, nature study, geocaching, and equestrian usage by permit only. Activities that are not approved on the SOFWEA include biking, hunting, and camping. Orange and Osceola counties’ future land use maps indicate that the SOFWEA will continue to be designated and zoned as conservation and preservation/rural lands.
The current land use designations for areas in the vicinity of the SOFWEA in the Osceola county portion are low-density residential and mixed use. In Orange County the areas surrounding SOFWEA are designated as rural, conservation, and planned development. According to Osceola and Orange County’s comprehensive plan, conservation/preservation lands allows for 1 unit/5 acres.