published: Sunday, February 20, 2011
An example of practical democracy
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRIING -- Recently several hundred people gathered at the Sebring Civic Center to listen to a presentation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The topic was the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
The proposed area will encompass 150,000 acres. Its supporters say it will help recharge the aquifer and restore the Everglades, while providing needed habitat and migration corridors for endangered wildlife.
In a rapidly growing state with urban sprawl, the supporters say, some wild areas must be protected from development or the day will come when there are no wild areas left.
In Highlands County, the refuge runs from the Kissimmee River in the east to the Lake Wales Ridge; and from the county line and the Avon Park Air Force Range in the north to the county line in the south, cutting through the corner formed by Highlands, Glades and Okeechobee counties.
Roughly a third of Highlands County, west of the ridge, is outside the boundary.
At the meeting, and in conversations since, representatives from the Fish & Wildlife Service said they want to hear from local residents.
Charles Pelizza, refuge manager at Pelican Island and a part of the organizing team, said the first step of the creation process is establishing a working partnership with the community. That means honest and open conversation is essential.
The News-Sun reached out to people who attended the Sebring meeting in order to understand the concerns of those in opposition to the refuge and conservation area, and the reasons those in favor of the refuge support it.
David Houghton, vice president of conservation programs at the National Wildlife Refuge Association, supports the proposal.
In a telephone interview he said a vibrant rural ranching community is essential to maintain the environmental health of Central Florida. He said the proposal contained a blend of ideas and options aimed at helping land rich ranching families keep their properties intact while protecting the environment.
Among the choices, landowners will be able to either sell land outright, or agree to conservation easements, or sign cooperative agreements, lease land or donate it. The key, Houghton said, "is that we will only buy from willing sellers."
He referred to a map of the proposed refuge and conservation area, which includes parts of five counties and covers thousands of acres. "The map will be refined," he said. "The lines will change as the refuge is built around the willing sellers."
Hunters and sportsmen will be "very happy and surprised when they find out this is a different kind of refuge" he added, with areas where hunting and fishing will be allowed.
"I think as things shake out and the proposal is refined, a lot of this (the opposition) will dry up and go away," Houghton said. "We're in the listening phase, it's open-ended. We're trying to make friends not alienate neighbors."
Many potential neighbors are skeptical. The three concerns mentioned the most often are loss of access, the use of eminent domain, and a lack of trust in the federal government.
For example, Phil Griner told the News-Sun, "My concern is getting a federal agency in charge of Florida.
"Who makes the rules? The (agency) director," Griner said. "He doesn't have to follow a set procedure, a process that is more or less controlled. With Fish & Wildlife there is no process. It's all up to the director. What if he changes his mind?
"The federal government should stay out of it. We have enough trouble with the state."
Claude Lemay is an owner at River Ranch, a private camping, riding and hunting reserve in Polk County.
"Oh, this is a good thing for the large landowners," he said. "They come out smelling like roses, getting to keep their property and having the government pay for it at the same time."
But, for the small land owner it is different. "The government says, 'I need that, I want that, and I'm going to have it,'" Lemay said.
"(At River Ranch) we all own little plots, and share the camping and hunting areas. As far as I can tell they (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) will wind up taking it, so we're fighting as hard as we can."
He is also concerned about the restrictions of a refuge.
He used the Big Cypress National Refuge and Conservation Area as an example.
"Sure, you can hunt there for certain animals at certain times of the year, but they don't allow any air boats or swamp buggies, no mechanized vehicles, not even horses if you can believe that. How are you going to get a deer out through the swamp?"
Generational Theft (by: SebringBob - 2/23/2011)
Here comes the federal government again just taking property away because they want to. Like they are the only people in America that know how to protect something. This has nothing to do with managing anything. The state's rights are being trampled once again. Time to stand up and tell Washington DC to go pound sand.
River Ranch (by: Mrs. Lemay - 2/22/2011)
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