Conservation

Black Skimmer head -photo by Ken Schmidt

 

 

2014 Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment

Proper Implementation

 

The major conservation/environmental organizations in Florida combined  efforts to  pass a Constitutional Amendment in 2014 that was a mandate to dedicate funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands. The intent of the amendment was to restore funding for a group of highly successful programs that were already established by Florida statutes. The Florida Forever Program and its predecessor, Preservation 2000, provided $300 million/year for purchases of environmentally-sensitive lands from 1990 to 2007. The Amendment provides a straightforward set of priorities for spending documentary stamp taxes on water and land conservation by specifically invoking statutory language relating to existing conservation programs like Florida Forever, Florida Communities Trust and Everglades restoration. It was in direct response to the drastic cuts in these programs that the Florida Water and Land Legacy sponsor committee was formed.  Since the Amendment passed, the Florida Legislature has taken funds that were to be dedicated to land and water conservation and diverted them to pay for operations that had previously been funded with funds from general revenue. Seminole Audubon was very involved in the effort to place the Water and Land Legacy Amendment on the ballot and in the efforts to assure its passage. We will continue to advocate for the proper implementation of the Water and Land Conservation Amendment and work to reverse the egregious actions of the Florida Legislature.

 

Project Colony Watch 

 

Black Neck Stilt -photo by Ken Schmidt

Many of Florida’s most spectacular waterbirds (wading birds) nest in groups called colonies.  A colony may include just a few nests, or thousands, and may occur on an island or in a marsh or swamp.  Colonies are sensitive to disturbance because many birds gather to lay their eggs and nest in a relatively small geographic area.

Over the past decade, Seminole Audubon Society has conducted several wading-bird surveys around Jane Isle, in Lake Jesup. These surveys have culminated in the inclusion of Jane Isle in Florida Audubon Society’s Project Colony Watch, a statewide wading-bird, nesting inventory, Project Colony Watch.  In July 2004 SAS hosted Ann Paul and Bruce Ackerman from Audubon of Florida on the first-ever Project Colony Watch research tour of Jane Isle. The objective of this inaugural Project Colony Watch excursion was to view and record Jane Isle’s significant wading-bird colonies, implementing flight-line techniques and GPS waypoints for data quality consistency.  Ms. Paul and Mr. Ackerman were impressed by the number and quality of wading birds in residence on the island, even in July, and endorsed taking steps to preserve and protect this valuable habitat.

Lake Jesup is the only really large lake wholly within Seminole County. As you cross the lake on 417,  you can see Jane Island to the East. It is roughly circular in outline, low enough to be sometimes covered in water, and about one quarter of a mile in diameter (giving it an area of some 31 acres).  Because of its relative inaccessibility, Bird Island has developed into a significant roosting and nesting area for wading birds and was used for years as a nesting site by Bald Eagles.

 

Wading Birds on Jane Isle

 

The most conspicuous birds on the island at present are the wading birds, many of which nest there. Many of these birds nest in colonies on islands or over water, and their use of alligator habitat for nesting is well known. Often freshwater colony sites are protected from raccoons and mammalian predators by patrolling alligators, which, unlike raccoons, don’t climb trees. Even with this ideal balance of habitat and protection from predators, the nesting birds could still be vulnerable from vegetative changes or impacts from human activity.  SAS has identified Jane Isle as the largest colony of wading birds in Seminole County, providing refuge and nesting habitat for the following regularly-observed species: 

Double-Crested Cormorant • American Anhinga • Great Blue Heron • Little Blue Heron • Cattle Egret • Great Egret • Snowy Egret • Tri-Colored Heron • Glossy Ibis • White Ibis • Wood Stork

 

Jane Isle is listed with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as significant wading bird nesting colony #612110, and is included in Audubon of Florida’s statewide Project Colony Watch data-collection program for nesting wading birds.  During the nesting season, roughly January through June, Seminole Audubon Society conducts monthly flight-line surveys. The surveys are conducted by boat, using the Audubon of Florida Flight-Line protocol.

 Click for the JaneIsleCountSummary totals and details of the last 12 counts.

Click for a satellite view of Jane Isle: JaneIslePoints

 

The History of Jane Isle and Lake Jesup

 

Information concerning the history of Lake Jesup can be found on a plaque at Clifton Springs, the Seminole County Natural Lands property on the South Lake Jesup shore, recording the fact that naturalists John and William Bartram camped there during their excursion up the St Johns River in 1765-66. Scientists distinguished Clifton Springs again in this century as the location where an endemic fish (Fundulus bartrami) and snail (Aphaostracon theiocrenetus) were first identified. There was reportedly an indigo plantation on the shores of the lake in the late eighteenth century. However, it appears that little was known of the area, and the territory was largely left to the Indians and escaped slaves until its "rediscovery’ in 1837. Lieutenant R H Peyton of the Second Artillery was sent by Colonel Harney to make a map of the area upstream of Lake Monroe. His report, from Fort Mellon, May 24, 1837 states:

"Col: I have the honor to report that in obedience to your orders I started on the morning of the 22nd of May, 1837, with a command of 20 men and four friendly Creek Indians, to explore the St Johns River of which but little was known above Lake Monroe.  After leaving Lake Monroe, the river pursues a serpentine course…. winding through marshes and occasional live oak and cabbage palm hammocks…. about 11 miles, when it reaches a large lake…. it gradually expanded into a noble sheet of water and stretched in a southwest direction…. the whole length being 13 miles. In honor of our commanding Gen. I have called this Lake Jesup. In the middle is a beautiful island of a circular form containing about 200 acres covered with a high rank grass; in the center of this we observed a very picturesque clump of cabbage trees which were filled with nests of white heron, blue crane and a red bird with a spoon bill called by the Indians "hololo". From its position and shape I have called this "Circle Island".

More than 150 years later “Circle Island” is privately-owned property named Jane Isle after Mrs. Annah Jane Richardson of Tallahassee, the island’s owner since 1951. Mrs. Richardson and her family have worked to preserve the island’s wild nature and undisturbed habitat.  They’ve worked diligently to protect the property from trespassers and disturbance from boaters.  Seminole Audubon Society salutes Mrs. Richardson and her family for their commitment to conserving and protecting this glimpse of “Natural Florida.”

 

Coastal Habitat

 

Florida’s coasts and coastal areas include a rich assemblage of essential habitats used by diverse species of birds, fish and other wildlife and plants. Coastal habitats include reefs, shoals, islands, beaches, marine waters, mangrove swamps, estuaries, marshes, wetlands, floodplains, rivers, streams, coastal hammocks, and maritime forests.

These habitats have evolved under the influence of long-term climate, hydrologic, and geologic forces. Abundant and seasonal freshwater flows from Florida’s many rivers, streams, springs and the Everglades are vital to create especially diverse and productive estuaries.

Great Egret

Coastal habitats are enjoyed by people for bird-watching and other wildlife observation, fishing, hunting, swimming, boating, and other recreation and are used for scientific and historic discovery, food production, navigation, trade, and locations for people to live and work.  Many of Florida’s coastal areas are now altered, disturbed, and dominated by human use as population growth and development have located people and human use in places that once supported abundant and balanced populations of birds, fish, and other wildlife.

Freshwater flows into estuaries have been significantly altered by upland and upstream drainage, flood control, development, and water use projects. Water quality in many coastal waters is declining as a result of sediment, nutrient, and chemical pollution. Populations of many coastal bird species are at risk due to alteration of coastal habitats and disturbance by people and their pets during nesting seasons, causing death of eggs and young birds.

Many species including shorebirds and colonial wading birds have declined in their historic ranges. Many are listed by federal and state agencies and by science organizations and require significant intervention and management efforts to prevent extirpation from Florida’s coastal areas or extinction. Each species that makes use of beaches and other coastal habitats such as wintering and migrating birds also has specific habitat requirements for reproduction, foraging, and resting.

SAS makes protection and restoration of colonial wading birds a conservation priority by monthly monitoring and flight-line surveys of  Jane Isle, a significant wading bird colony in Lake Jesup, part of the St. Johns River. Jane Isle is included in Audubon Florida’s  Project Colony Watch. Monthly survey data are compiled and reported to Audubon Florida for inclusion in the statewide Project Colony Watch database, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Seminole County.

 

Least Tern Nesting Project

 

In addition to colonial wading bird surveys, SAS supports protection and restoration of coastal habitat by partnering with local and regional land management agencies in the monitoring of a Least Tern Colony in Sanford. The Least Terns returned to the Sanford area in 2014 after an absence of several years. This shorebird species began nesting on rooftops as their natural habitat on the beach became crowded with humans. Our team has assessed the rooftop for safety and made improvements where necessary. We now monitor the Colony during the nesting season and record our observations in the data base maintained by the Shore Bird Alliance.

 

Wekiva River Ecosystem

 

Little Blue Heron (juvenile)

The ecosystem comprising the Wekiva River and its tributaries, the St. Johns River and associated lands, the "Wekiva Basin Area," represents one of the most valuable natural assets of this State. The Wekiva area is joined with a major spring-shed in excess of 300,000 acres in size that provides groundwater to maintain the base flows of the springs which make up most of the flow of the Wekiva River and associated streams. The Wekiva ecosystem is joined by a relatively unbroken corridor of habitat with the Ocala National Forest, and constitutes one of the most important habitat areas for the black bear in the State. The State of Florida has acquired over 60,000 acres of public conservation lands in the Wekiva area, which is experiencing tremendous development pressure.

Audubon of Florida has maintained a leadership role in efforts to protect the Wekiva River Ecosystem since c.1981 and has successfully undertaken efforts to create protective regulations and promote acquisition of land to protect this vital Florida resource. Working with others, Audubon pushed passage of the Wekiva River Protection Act (1988), the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act (2004), and the designation of the Wekiva River as “Outstanding Florida Waters” and a national Wild and Scenic River.

SAS continues its partnership with local conservation groups, including Friends of the Wekiva and the Wekiva Coalition to actively pursue conservation, legislative, and public outreach efforts in the Wekiva River ecosystem.

 

Florida Scrub-Jays in the Wekiva Basin

 

Florida scrub-jays, one of the most habitat-specific federally-listed birds in Florida, are residents at the county-owned Yankee Lake property. When the county applied in 1993 to the US Army Corps of Engineers for a permit modification to construct Rapid Infiltration Basins, the State Audubon Ornithologist provided the survey and management plan that was submitted with the application. Twenty-five scrub-jays were documented representing six family groups. The Corps of Engineers issued the permit in 1994. In 2000, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) informed the county that the conditions of the management agreement were not being conducted satisfactorily. The County responded by contracting PBS&J to restore suitable habitat and prepare another plan to perpetuate the conditions necessary for the long-term survival of the jays.1 We are hopeful that the careful attention by this professional environmental team will allow the population to expand. The Audubon ornithologist believed that the Yankee Lake site is capable of supporting ten families of Florida Scrub-Jays.

Florida Scrub-Jay

In conjunction with this habitat restoration task, PBS&J also performed a total species survey in the Phase One Wetland Reuse System at Yankee Lake. The survey found that this ecosystem could support nineteen federal and state listed species. Fourteen listed species were actually observed in the survey. The soil and vegetative conditions are noted to be suitable for the potential occurrence of ten federally listed plant species.2 The annual field trip our Audubon Chapter now makes to Yankee Lake is one of our most productive for number of bird species observed. Including the scrub-jays, we normally see more then fifty species of birds in just few hours. 3 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection supplies more evidence that the habitat conditions near the Wekiva River in northwestern Seminole County are congenial for birds. From 1999 to 2002, a FDEP staff person conducted regular bird surveys in the River from the Wekiva Marina to the confluence with the St Johns. This includes the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve adjacent to the county's Yankee Lake property. A total of 120 bird species were recorded. 4  Audubon conducts an annual Wekiva Christmas Bird Count. The radius of the Wekiva count circle includes the Lower Wekiva State Preserve, Yankee Lake and the Black Bear Wilderness Area. Audubon volunteers observed 184 bird species over the last ten years. 5 

Our members applauded the 1988 Florida Legislature that enacted the Wekiva River Protection Act. We believed the native plants and wildlife in the Protection Zone had been assured a safe haven by the new state statute even as development in Central Florida was rapidly converting many other habitat areas to human uses. When developers attempted to loosen the restrictive phrasings in the Wekiva Act with applications for increased intensity of human activity in the Protection Area, our Chapter joined with other environmental organizations and individuals filing objections.

Florida Scrub-Jay

Of the several controversial applications for development in the Wekiva area that we opposed, the Astor Farms application was most egregious. Astor Farms was a meadow in the middle of a wildlife wilderness. When not in agricultural production, the fields at Astor Farms provided ideal hunting for kestrels and hawks. Sandhill Cranes were often seen foraging there. A common remark from area residents was that black bears always took a large share of the watermelon crop. Bobcats and fox were also reported.

The Department of Community Affairs supported our interpretation of the Wekiva Act and forced a settlement action at Astor Farms that reduced the total number of houses and required specific lower densities for the portion of the property inside the Wekiva Protection Area. Acknowledging the proximate nature of the area wildlife, the developer agreed to construct a fence completely around the development site even before the construction of any houses. It was well known that bears and other wildlife would present a conflict with humans at this location. The developer also agreed to other design strategies that could reduce the negative effects on wildlife. On the expressway map of proposed routes, Astor Farms can be seen adjacent to the Black Bear Wilderness Area, just to the south of the northern most alternative route through Seminole County. The evidence at Astor Farms suggests clearly that this northern alternative route through undeveloped wilderness area would be devastating to wildlife. 

The vague wording in the Wekiva Statute continued to be a problem. It became clear that the Wekiva Act’s protective provisions were not adequately incorporated into the Seminole County Comprehensive Plan. The County Board of Commissioners then initiated meetings among concerned environmentalists, developers and county staff that resulted in an agreement that became known as the Wekiva Global Settlement. After several years of meetings, public hearings and scrutiny by the DCA, the BCC adopted numerous policies into the County Comp Plan for the preservation of the rural nature and character inside the Protection area. Ten new policies in the Future Land Use Element require specific actions that will contribute to the preservation of Wekiva natural resources. The concept of rural character is defined by means of seven new planning policies. 6

Perhaps the most significant of the new policies was the agreement to trade higher housing density in a transitional area remote from the River for permanent land preservation on the Yankee Lake property. The county agreed to conduct a study to determine what portion of the Yankee Lake property would be surplus to the functions necessary for water treatment and then incorporate that portion into the County’s Natural Lands Program. Approximately 1100 acres have now been permanently preserved and will be managed for their natural resource value because of this provision in the Global Settlement. This area has recently been combined with the Riverside Ranch Natural Lands property to form the Black Bear Wilderness Area. County staff has conducted species surveys over these combined lands since 1995.7  Seminole citizens, developers and county commissioners all agreed this area should remain wild and undeveloped. 

All the human activity and development that occurs in our region increases the importance of preserved lands for wildlife, water recharge and our own psychological need for open space. Land use changes and development have already forced wildlife to look elsewhere for sanctuary. Seminole County Government has established a vision and practical plan for the beneficial coexistence of nature and humans. We believe the species identified in this report are evidence that the plan can succeed. 

We strongly believe a road as proposed anywhere through the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve, the Yankee Lake property or the Black Bear Wilderness Area would fragment and reduce the value of this important habitat and lead to a reduction in the native plants and animals, including listed species, that sustain themselves on these lands.

Notes:

1 Yankee Lake Scrub Jay Survey Summary, October 2002 — Susan Shaw – PBS&J

2 Threatened and Endangered Fauna and Floral Species Listing — Phase One Wetland Reuse System Susan Shaw - PBS&J

3 Field Trips to Yankee Lake Scrub Jay Preservation Area Report — Seminole Audubon Society

4 Birds Found at the Wekiva River and St Johns River Aquatic Preserve —   Lorne Malo - FDEP

5 Audubon Wekiva Christmas Bird Count, 1991 – 2001 — (including Lower Wekiva State Reserve, Yankee Lake and Black Bear Wilderness Area)

6 Seminole County Vision 2020 Comprehensive Plan, Pages FLU-50 – FLU-57

7 Black Bear Wilderness Area Boundary Map; Total Count for Wilderness Area by Species 1995-2002 — Seminole County Natural Lands Dept.