Of all the legitimate questions raised about Biosurvival Trust, the most important one is this: Why is a group with no land management experience and no track record being considered to manage what will be Pinellas County's largest park? If not for questions raised by the media and some environmental groups, county commissioners might have given routine approval to hiring Biosurvival, a Safety Harbor-based organization founded last year, to manage 3,800 acres of undeveloped land in northeast Pinellas. The county now has agreed to seek management proposals from other groups, but still sings the praises of Biosurvival.
Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers initiated discussions with Biosurvival after meeting its executive director, Nicole Duplaix, at a conference. He told County Administrator Fred Marquis that the county parks department lacks the exper-
tise to manage the land, known as the Brooker Creek Preserve. Professionals should be hired for the job, he said, and he knew just the group.
Biosurvival agreed to manage the land as a nature preserve without charging any money. But it wanted something in return: The right to conduct research projects there, breed animals _ including some species not native to Florida _ and operate a native plant nursery. Biosurvival also promised an environmental education center that would be open to school groups and other visitors under certain conditions, but routine public access would be blocked by a perimeter fence.
That's when St. Petersburg Times staff writer Craig Pittman began asking the kinds of questions about Biosurvival that Stowers should have asked. And a lot of the answers he got indicated Biosurvival is not all it claims. For instance:
Biosurvival Trust said it is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a not-for-profit group, but the Internal Revenue Service says it isn't. Oops, the group has just applied for that status, Duplaix said.
Biosurvival Trust claims in its literature to sponsor "the Biosurvival International Center for Ecological Education," with branches on a "growing number" of college campuses. Oops, it doesn't have any centers after all. They are just in the planning stage, Duplaix said.
Biosurvival Trust said it would propagate plants in "close collaboration" with the Pinellas chapter of the Native Plant Society. But society president Judith Buhrman said she had only a brief chat with someone from Biosurvival and knew nothing about any collaboration.
Biosurvival Trust claims to have more than 2,000 members worldwide. But most of those people were members of Biosurvival's predecessor, Zoovival, a for-profit group founded by former Clearwater computer software salesman Gregory Cunningham. Zoovival recruited people to breed exotic amphibians and reptiles for sale.
After Duplaix joined Cunningham and the name of the group was changed to Biosurvival Trust, Cunningham resigned, leaving Duplaix in charge. Duplaix holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Paris, has studied otters in South America and has written for National Geographic.
But there is no indication Duplaix is an experienced land manager. And that is the expertise Pinellas County should be seeking. If the county parks department lacks that expertise _ and we have heard no complaints about the department's oversight of other facilities, including Sawgrass Lake Park _ then the county should recruit such a specialist for the parks staff. That individual could direct management of the Brooker Creek land and also give advice on management of other county properties.
The job of managing 3,800 acres of pristine county land is too important to hand to an unknown quantity like Biosurvival Trust.