FWC secures conservation benefit with the partial release of easements at Split Oak Forest WEA

FWC secures conservation benefit with the partial release of easements at Split Oak Forest WEA

At the May 1st Commission Meeting in Daytona Beach, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of an agreement with the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) and Osceola County to release 60 acres of Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area’s conservation easements in exchange for 1,550 acres of abutting conservation land, part of a total package estimated at $66 million.

The FWC will receive $23.9 million for management of the 1,550 acres and $1.25 million for access improvements and amenities at Split Oak Forest WEA. The CFX has also pledged $18 million for the identification and acquisition of lands within FWC-identified optimum boundaries in support of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. The 1,550 acres are valued at approximately $23 million, according to the property appraisal market value.

The FWC will only consider the release of conservation easements to achieve a net positive benefit. The lands received by the FWC in this exchange represent a 25:1 offset of the direct loss of 60 acres of habitat within Split Oak Forest WEA’s conservation easement, a 17:1 return on upland habitat, and 6:1 gains in gopher tortoise habitat.

“This agreement is the best available path forward for Split Oak Forest,” said Rodney Barreto, FWC Chairman. “While it is never simple to consider releasing conservation land, I am proud of the major conservation gains we’ve secured in exchange. This level of return is where the conversation starts going forward.”

The CFX has proposed construction of the Osceola Parkway Extension, part of a regional expressway, which would result in direct and indirect impacts to the southern portion of Split Oak Forest WEA. FWC staff worked with CFX, Orange and Osceola counties, and Executive Director Roger Young to identify alternatives that would minimize and mitigate the anticipated impacts as part of the proposed agreement.

“Staff carefully examined this issue over many years in order to provide a thorough understanding of this subject to Commissioners for their decision,” said Melissa Tucker, Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. “We feel this agreement delivers on the responsibility to provide a net benefit.”

Additional steps will be taken to finalize new interagency agreements, as well as transfer lands and funding to the FWC, prior to the release of easements. A revision of the existing management plan will follow.

Split Oak Forest WEA is comprised of 1,689 acres jointly owned by Orange and Osceola counties. It was acquired in 1992 with a grant award from the Florida Communities Trust and funding from the FWC Gopher Tortoise Mitigation Park Program, to be used as a mitigation area to offset impacts to gopher tortoise habitat from development. The FWC holds conservation easements over the area and staff manage Split Oak Forest WEA through an interagency agreement.


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