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Conservationists speak out against construction of toll road that would destroy 60 acres of protected lands: 'It is important for us to look for alternatives'

"We are a test tube in this forum for the rest of the state."

"We are a test tube in this forum for the rest of the state."

Photo Credit: Osceola County

Conservation lands do much for communities and the economy, including protecting our food supply, purifying our air, and providing wildlife habitats. When they are reduced, so are the benefits. Despite being listed as protected, conservation lands may still find themselves as targets for development.

What's happening?

Florida Today reported that a toll road proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) is set to be developed through 60 acres of protected conservation land in central Florida. 

The land, located in Split Oak Forest in Osceola County, is part of a conservation easement.  Holding this status since 1995 with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the easement is a voluntary, legal agreement between property owners and the government or a nonprofit organization to preserve the land while property owners receive tax breaks and hold the title. 

CFX expressed its interest in obtaining a portion of the land for 1.3 miles of a nine-mile, $800 million tollway that extends to Osceola Parkway. Many residents shared concern over the move, namely for the stress it puts on local biodiversity, fire management, and trust in government agencies to protect conservation lands.   

"It is important for us to look for alternatives to build roads," Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told Florida Today. Demings joined a dozen residents from both counties in voting "no" for the plan at a meeting held by CFX, despite the plan to expand Split Oak's bordering lands by 1,500 acres and for CFX to fund the restoration over a 30-year period. 

Why is the construction of a toll road important?

According to EnvironmentalScience.org, road developments reduce natural habitats that promote biodiversity. The destruction of conservation lands also gives the impression that government agreements, or conservation easements, may not be able to endure development pressure for long. 

"We are a test tube in this forum for the rest of the state," said Anthony Rodriguez, a Central Florida resident. 

Despite the 1,500 acres offered in exchange for the 60 to construct the toll road, many of those acres cannot support local wildlife such as the gopher tortoises. By cutting down part of the forest for development, less trees are able to reduce harmful pollution from the air, which impacts the health of communities. 

What's being done about it?

Concerned conservationists shared fear that the release of lands from Split Oak could make the Florida Wildlife Corridor — protected conservation lands of 18 million acres — an eventual target. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee has taken precautions to finalize new agreements while transferring funding and lands to the agency. In addition, the agency decided to review and revise the current land management plan.  

Toll roads contribute to more air and water pollution. Adapting to eco-friendly methods of transportation, such as walking or biking, promotes healthier food systems and communities

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