A bid by hunters to gain access to more public lands owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District should be treated with extreme caution. Taxpayers have conserved Swiftmud's 436,000 acres in west-central Florida to protect water resources and natural ecosystems while offering Floridians passive enjoyment of their surroundings. Hunting, with its inherent danger, doesn't fit easily in this picture.
Hunting already exists on more than 132,000 acres and in more than a dozen places within Swiftmud's 54 tracts of land in its 16-county district. But the United Waterfowlers of Florida wants more. The group has been pushing hard across the state for more access.
But previous evaluations suggest that when it comes to the Swiftmud request, the hunters should lose. As recently as 2006 each one of the eight tracts of Swiftmud-controlled land that are now under consideration for hunting were explicitly found by the water district to be "unsuitable for hunting" for a variety of reasons, including the presence of endangered species or being too urbanized. These include Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps, Cypress Creek Preserve, Lower Hills- borough Wilderness Preserve, Green Swamp East, Green Swamp West, Lake Panasoffkee, Halpata Tastanaki Preserve and Weeki Wachee Preserve.
Nothing has changed since then. Hundreds of people attended a hearing last month in Plant City, most to express their opposition. Equestrians were particularly vehement that hunters would drive them off the trails out of fear of an errant shot or arrow.
Swiftmud is still a long way from making any final decisions. In the next couple of months there will be individual public hearings on land management plans for each of the eight tracts. Then agency staff will provide a 13-member Governing Board with final recommendations sometime in the fall or winter. The earliest changes in hunting access wouldn't be before the 2012-2013 hunting season which begins September 2012.
But what Swiftmud must not lose sight of as it considers this request is that a relatively small group of hunters should not outweigh the interests of hikers, birders, horseback riders and picnickers who depend on those lands for safe recreation. The latter have the stronger claim.