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Outcry over Biosurvival offers lessons

Pinellas County officials have changed direction because of the public outcry over their plan to let a newly formed and virtually unknown conservation group manage almost 4,000 acres of undeveloped East Lake land. That's good, but that's not where it all should end. County officials also should examine their procedures and perhaps their attitudes to avoid stumbling into such bumpy territory again.

The county staff agreed to issue a request for management proposals from other, better-known groups than Biosurvival Trust, a Safety Harbor-based group that was formed only last year and still was undergoing management changes late last month. Little was known about the group then, and some claims in its literature were not true.

Biosurvival's proposal, which the county already was considering when the media and local environmentalists began asking questions, now can be compared with other proposals that may be submitted by groups with track records.

The county staff is writing the specifications those proposals will have to meet, and local environmentalists and community activists will be permitted to review the specifications before they are sent out. That's another change of course; if specifications were developed for Biosurvival, they were developed so quietly that no one in the community knew what they were.

Some county officials haven't acted very happy about being forced to open up this process, but it is good for them and good for the county. Public opinion can lead to greater public support for projects, as well as pointing out possible pitfalls. After all, local residents concerned about the environment sounded the first alarm about Biosurvival Trust.

There is another lesson here for county officials: People in Pinellas County care about any remaining undeveloped land. It doesn't matter whether the land is in a far corner of the county or covered with brambles. They want it preserved, and they want a voice in determining what is done with it. County officials would be wise to seek public comment on management and use of the East Lake land every step of the way.

Several environmentalists and civic activists met with Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers this week to lobby for greater say, but they could use some help. Some well-known environmental groups were not represented at the meeting. We would like to see broader representation and participation by state and local officers of groups such as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy.

County officials previously have brushed aside a suggestion that the County Commission appoint an environmental advisory board such as that recently formed by the Clearwater City Commission. They have said such a group isn't needed.

The Biosurvival episode should be proof enough that they are wrong.

Robert Henderson Editor

Diane Steinle Editor of editorials