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Hasty review put Green Swamp parcel on DEP surplus list

Four months ago, when state officials released a list of 169 parcels of Florida park land that might be sold as surplus, one name stood out: the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County.

Totaling more than 2,600 acres, the six parcels in the 16,000-acre Hilochee formed the biggest chunk of land on the original list of 5,000 acres that state officials said might no longer be needed for conservation.

But Hilochee's location in the Green Swamp made it seem an odd choice. Protecting the swamp — the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hills­borough and Withlacoochee — is considered crucial to the protection of Florida's aquifer.

Records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show the Hilochee land was put on the surplus list in haste, with what one Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official called a "fairly quick and coarse review."

After the Department of Environmental Protection's list became public and critics questioned the inclusion of some of the parcels, the DEP dropped about 1,000 acres off it.

Biologists with the wildlife commission, which owns the Hilochee land, strongly recommended that Hilochee be taken off the list too. But so far, the wildlife agency and DEP officials have kept Hilochee on the to-sell list.

"I thought about telling the DEP to take it off their list," wildlife commission assistant executive director Eric Sutton said last week.

Instead, he and DEP state lands director Susan Grandin said, while they have kept Hilochee on the to-sell list, they did so with an important caveat: The only way the land could be sold is if it has a provision known as a conservation easement on the sale blocking it from being developed.

When asked if that didn't demonstrate that the property still had conservation value — and thus, under state law, did not qualify as surplus — Grandin said, "It's a little confusing."

And Sutton said that was "a good question," adding, "I really don't have the legal answer for that."

To Marian Ryan, a Polk County resident as well as the Sierra Club's Florida conservation chairwoman, Hilochee should stay in the hands of the taxpayers instead of being put up for sale to the highest bidder.

She said the Hilochee land, full of forests and swamps, sees plenty of use by hikers, mountain bike riders, hunters and geocaching enthusiasts. More than 11,000 people visited Hilochee last year, although there's no way to know how many visited the 2,600 acres that's on the list.

More important, Ryan said, the parcels straddling Interstate 4 have long been slated as the site for an important wildlife crossing built by the Florida Department of Transportation and financed by federal money. The under-the-road crossing is aimed at keeping bears and other animals — including, possibly, Florida panthers — from being run over.

"I can't believe they'd want a wildlife corridor like that in private hands," she said. But Grandin said that's not unheard of.

That Hilochee would be put on the list shows how much Florida leaders' attitudes toward conservation have changed. For decades, Florida set the national standard for acquiring conservation land. Through programs like Florida Forever, the Legislature invested $300 million a year in buying land, assembling about 3 million acres.

But during the economic meltdown, Florida Forever funding dried up.

This year, according to Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper, environmental advocates tried to persuade Gov. Rick Scott's administration to budget $100 million to revive Florida Forever. Instead, Scott's DEP proposed — and the Legislature approved — $20 million in cash and up to $50 million funded by the sale of lands declared surplus.

That provision prompted the DEP and other state agencies to hunt for land they could sell to raise $50 million. The Hilochee land was on the list that the wildlife agency pulled together for the DEP, put there primarily because of problems the agency has had with managing it and providing public access, Sutton said.

"This list reflects a fairly quick and coarse review of lands under FWC management," biologist Tom Houston wrote in an email. He recommended doing "a natural resource value assessment" in order "to fully inform any final determination." Instead, the agency just passed it along to DEP.

When the DEP cut the list, it spared 15 acres of tropical hardwood hammocks in the Florida Keys because since 1975, the Keys have been what is formally known as an "Area of Critical State Concern." The state is keeping a tight rein on growth there over concerns about hurricane evacuation.

But the Green Swamp is also an Area of Critical State Concern, dating to the days after Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and there was pressure to pave the swamp for development.

In September, state wildlife commission employees drafted a letter to the DEP calling for the Hilochee parcels to be removed because "they are within an area that has been designated as critical state concern and they have been identified as possible areas for development of I-4 wildlife crossings." That was never sent.

Instead, the requirement of a conservation easement was put on the potential sale — although Grandin said that would undoubtedly lower the price and chase away some potential buyers.

Environmental activists have speculated that the only reason Hilochee remains on the surplus list is that, without it, there isn't much of a list left, and thus no way to get anywhere near $50 million. Grandin denied that.

"We're not trying to come out at a specific dollar amount," Grandin said. "We're just following through the process." She said it's unknown at this point when the DEP will publish its final list.

Ryan noted that the whole point of selling off the land is to use the money to buy better conservation land. "Where," she asked, "are you going to buy something better in the Green Swamp?"

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

A brief history

The Hilochee land has had a checkered history. In 1993, it was owned by a development company called ScanAmerica that wound up charged with seven felonies and nine misdemeanors over the building of unauthorized roads that destroyed wetlands at the edge of the Green Swamp.

The case made headlines across the state because it marked the first time a corporation had been charged with a felony involving destroying wetlands. But a judge ruled officers had bungled a search of the company's offices and excluded the evidence. Prosecutors dropped all charges.

In 2008, after the state bought the land, a controlled burn of 10 acres of the Hilochee land got away from wildlife officials and smoke from the ensuing 400-acre wildfire mingled with a morning fog, causing a chain-reaction of crashes among 70 vehicles on Interstate 4 that killed at least four people and sent 38 more to three hospitals.

Hasty review put Green Swamp parcel on DEP surplus list 11/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 23, 2013 10:05pm]
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