Split Oak Forest Burn History and Fire Management

In light of an incorrect statement by an elected official about Split Oak Forest's burn history, I have decided to describe Split Oak's fire management and why it's critical to the integrity of the park.

I requested Split Oak Forest's burn history from the managers of the site, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and was given this Burn History Map 2017 -2018. I created a heat map of the whole site using this data.

To summarize, every burn unit in Split Oak Forest has been burned with a prescribed fire in the last thirteen years. FWC has conducted 125 separate controlled burns on Split Oak since they've been managing it.

216 acres (+/-12%) of Split Oak was burned in the past year. Four burns were conducted last fall.

There are two places within Split Oak Forest that have never burned under FWC's management. The first is Lake Hart, which is a body of water, so would only burn if it's water levels dropped several feet for an extended period of time so that the bottom could dry out and be flammable. This would not occur because SFWMD controls Lake Hart's level via S62. You can view S62's real-time status here.

The second is the Lake Mary Jane Marsh. 'Slough marshes' such as this one used to burn more frequently in the past but are rarely burned by public agencies on purpose these days because the muck will smoulder for weeks and sometimes months. A good example of this were the muck fires last spring that caused road closures in Lake County, covered by WFTV.

Newly emerging saw palmetto fronds indicate a less-than-week-old fire in Unit 13. Photo taken August 2017.

Burned sticks of oak sprouts and gallberry bushes as well as the fire-scarred longleaf pine in the foreground and a completely torched longleaf in the background are evidence of the July burn in Unit 7.

A burn-scarred slash pine tree from the April 2016 burn in Unit 16A as of January 2018, looking over Lake Two.

Split Oak Forest must be managed according to a management plan that honors the original intent of establishing Split Oak Forest (page 15):

"The principle management emphasis at Split Oak Forest will be the protection and enhancement of habitat that is important to state and federally listed wildlife populations."

Based on the condition of Split Oak prior to acquisition by the two counties, only improved fire management were anticipated as necessary to meet that goal (page 4):

"Only fire management is needed in most of the upland portion of the site."

Prescribed fire is a major theme in Split Oak Forest's current management plan.

The League of Women Voters opposes any road through Split Oak Forest

We gained four strong voices today in the fight to save Split Oak Forest from the Osceola Parkway Extension:

  1. Wayne Liebnitzki, a  Republican running for the US Senate Seat in District 9
  2. The League of Women Voters of Florida
  3. The League of Women Voters of Orange County
  4. The League of Women Voters of Seminole County

Here is their letter to Fred Hawkins, Jr., Chair of the Osceola Board of County Commissioners and Chair of the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

New CFX Alignments East 5 v. East 6

To reduce the project's effects to wetlands, we recommend that alternatives 1, 2, and 3 be redesigned to terminate at County Road 15 (Narcoosee Road)." - John Wrubilik, US Fish and Wildlife Service, page 18

We prefer that the road begin at the airport and stop at SR 15/ Narcoossee Road, a position that multiple federal agencies stated in their official comments to the Turnpike Authority in 2012. These comments are quoted throughout this post. However, the Central Florida Expressway Authority is still proposing routes east of Narcoossee Road, including routes that impact Split Oak Forest. This blog post analyzed the most recently released alignments.

Since December of 2017, CFX has been showing two alignments that impact Split Oak Forest less, East 5 and East 6. The following map is from the December 14, 2017 board meeting agenda:

Page 321 with routes for both East and West segments of the Osceola Parkway Extension.

Let's zoom in a little on Split Oak Forest.

Osceola Parkway Extension East segment with points of interest labeled.

Point A shows where East 5 and 6 begin diverging from the rest of the alignments, crossing Clapp Simms Duda Road onto the parcels owned by various investment companies. Any existing homes on the properties appear vacant and these properties are fenced together with standard four-strand barbed wire and are grazed by cattle. These two options also avoid impacting the mitigation site on the north side of Clapp Simms Duda, here labeled 'World DRI Mitigation Site'.

The Corps concurs with the USFWS recommendation to reduce the project's effects to wetlands and redesigning all alternatives to terminate at County Road (CR) 15 (Narcoosee Road). [...] It should be noted that if FDOT continues to propose an alternative which extends east of CR 15 the Corps will request dispute resolution." - Andrew Phillips, US Army Corps of Engineers, page 17

Point B is where the difference in curve radius between East 5 and East 6 is most obvious. East 6 is much closer to the Lake Ajay Village and would take three lots in that community. East 5 takes a less relaxed curve and avoids taking any lots. I confirmed with two CFX-employed engineers that there is no reason that East 6 could not be curved like East 5.

Point C is where East 5 curves early to impact Split Oak, while it could delay curving and continue straight for another couple hundred feet and avoid impacting Split Oak.

The three alternatives merge at Tindall Acres Road and Boggy Creek Road. Beyond this point, the logical terminus is County Road 15. NMFS recommends that the roadway terminate there. The project purpose of supporting traffic demands and system linkage could still be accomplished. This would also eliminate the majority of impacts to the highest quality wetlands along the corridor. The extension of the road into the undeveloped area past County Road 15 would promote further development causing a great deal of indirect impacts to wetlands." - Brandon Howard, National Marine Fisheries Service, page 17

Point D is where East 5 begins to impact Split Oak, where East  6 avoids Split Oak, but is too close. FWC has previously recommended that roads, homes, and businesses be located over 1,000' from Split Oak's boundary, a position that Friends of Split Oak Forest espouses.

World Wetlands Day 2018

Happy Friday and Happy World Wetlands Day! This year's theme is 'Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future', which is apt, because it's likely that Split Oak will be surrounded by a suburban/urban Orlando-style development in the not-so-distant future.

I've recognized this "holiday" since I learned about it last year. It celebrates the 'Convention on Wetlands' adoption by 7 states under the jurisdiction of UNESCO. This convention is commonly known as the 'Ramsar Convention' after Ramsar, Iran, where this international treaty was signed. 'Ramsar's most common usage is in referring to wetlands that have international significance, like the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp, and Corkscrew Swamp. There are four Ramsar-designated wetlands in Florida and 38 in the United States.

Split Oak's sawgrass marsh from viewing platform in November 2017.

I'd like to take this moment to recognize Split Oak Forest's wetlands, the baygalls, the isolated marshes, the cypress domes, and, the pre-eminent sawgrass marsh. I'd like to take this moment to show a photo series of the sawgrass marsh since 1944.

CFX Environmental Advisory Group Meeting January 31st, 2018

The Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) Environmental Advisory Group (EAG) meeting today, January 31st, was from 9-11:00am in the Osceola Heritage Park. This is a long-standing advisory group that covers all projects that CFX is currently undertaking. Most environmental organizations and affected governmental agencies are invited. We had not been previously invited, though Florida Audubon, Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS), and Sierra Club representatives have been attending these for years.

Today, Dave and I were there for Friends of Split Oak. Representatives from the following organizations were there: Dewberry, Kimley-Horn, CH2M, FDOT, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Suburban Land Reserve (Deseret), Southport Ranch, Lake Mary Jane Alliance, Sierra Club Central Florida, Poinciana Residents for Smart Growth, Tavistock Group, Orange Audubon, Kissimmee Valley Audubon, Osceola County, and Orange County.

The other projects, Poinciana Parkway and Northeast Connector, were presented prior to the Osceola Parkway Extension.

Matthew Lamb of CH2M, the project manager, presented on the Osceola Parkway Extension. He started with the Western alignments from the 417/Airport and then moved to our area of interest, the ‘East Alignments’.

Slide 69 of the January 31, 2018 Environmental Advisory Group meeting presentation

The preliminary feasibility study was completed in March 2012 by OCX, the summary report (ETDM Programming Screen Summary Report) was completed in June 2012, and the agreement to takeover this project from OCX (by CFX) was signed September 8, 2017. He had a slide about Split Oak and how he heard all this this feedback that said “minimize impacts to Split Oak Forest”. We have requested but haven’t received the public comments yet, but I would bet that his hearing might be a bit off.

Bob Mindick (Osceola County) said that all of the plans don’t indicate habitat and wildlife corridors. The maps of the alignments need to include wildlife corridors. He thanks those that put the Florida National Scenic Trail in Split Oak. He and Beth went to DC. Also, he wants to address the cost estimates, not sure how fixed those costs are – they don’t take into account the changes in fire management or the impact on fire management costs.

I responded and said that FNAI already has identified high quality corridors in its Critical Lands Identification Program and that would not be difficult to delineate corridors on the maps shown.

Bryan Barnett (FWC) said when you look at the road combinations there are very significant mitigation requirements. Maybe you should have a big picture mitigation project. He said that FWC would endorse that.

Marge Holt (Sierra Club) said her group supports the 300 alignment of the Southport Connector [it is the furthest north alignment of the three and would impact a single caracara nest but destroy the least other habitat]. They also would support a big picture mitigation project.

Audrey (Toho Water) asked what the time frame is for this project.

Deborah Green (Orange Audubon) said she would also support a regional mitigation effort and offered Lake X as excellent habitat. She also cautioned about accurate Right of Way acquisition costs. One of the criticisms of the PDE from OCX was that the prices were inflated.

Suzanne Arnold (Lake Mary Jane Alliance) read this letter from Charles Lee.

I spoke up and said that I disagreed with Charles. I don’t believe that putting a road through conservation land held in fee simple by a county protected by conservation easements and deed restrictions improves regional conservation. In fact, it does the opposite by decreasing the defensibility of conservation protections throughout the state.

Bob Mindick said he disagreed with me and my approach was NIMBY and not considering regional impacts. Charles has a sense of vision and that all protections are limited if you think something’s permanent that’s not true. What can we do with something that’s sensitively done and delicately done? The final answer is to be seen and outright opposition is premature.

Dave Wegman (Friends of Split Oak) asks if these alignments are the ones that will be shown at the public information sessions? Will there be any additional public meetings?

The lady running the meeting doesn’t really answer the questions. Glenn steps in and doesn’t really answer the question either. They do say that the Project Advisory Committee (PAG) is meeting next week and that’s public input (the PAG is made of developers and consultants)

Suzanne Arnold asked if the refinement (that we saw at the G4/Split Oak Subcommittee last week) will be included or shown in any way at the public meetings.

The answer was not definitive.

The presentation slides from the meeting are here.

Slide 70 of the January 31, 2018 Environmental Advisory Group meeting presentation

Edited 2018-02-23 6:54am for clarity and to attach presentation.
Edited 2018-02-06 2:20pm to remove duplicate links.

Osceola Soil and Water Conservation District opposes road through Split Oak

The Osceola Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) created a resolution opposing the Osceola Parkway Extension through Split Oak Forest. The Osceola SWCD is tasked with protecting the soil and water of Osceola County and promoting conservation.

The CFX Board has alternate routes around the park that would leave this area undisturbed. We urge them to respect the irreplaceable land and select a different path,” says Larry Schneck, Chairman of Osceola SWCD

OSWCD Press Release Split Oak Forest

Dave and I’s first joint interview

Wednesday Dave and I were interviewed by Teresa Watkins on "In Your Garden" live on 790AM out of Leesburg. She's been following along on Facebook since December and asked us Monday to be on the show.  Dave and I tried to tag-team the questions but the lag made it easy to interrupt each other. I like that the publicity is coming a bit easier these days, though I'd like this issue to be national recognized. If these conservation easements and deed restrictions can be extinguished then that will degrade the reputation and effectiveness of these land protection tools throughout the entire United States.