Hello? Why doesn’t SJRWMD listen to their own biologists?

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2007

And now they don’t want the Governor or Cabinet to see their own top Biologists’ Study! Another example of Government suppressing Science? 

And now they don’t want the Governor or Cabinet to see their own top Biologists’ Study! Another example of Government suppressing Science? 

PIAS, Friends of St. Sebastian River (FOSSR), David Cox and separately, Indian River County (IRC) have appealed to the Governor and Cabinet to reconsider the SJRWMD Governing Board 7-2 approval of an exchange 1,265 acres of public conservation lands called the Sand Lakes Tract for only 460 acres owned by the Corrigan’s.  In addition, this sweetheart deal gives the Corrigans $657,300 for not pursuing a threatened lawsuit (see October Hoot).  Surprisingly, SJRWMD now is trying to prevent consideration of one of its own technical reports concerning the conservation value of Sand Lakes.

After the appeals were made, Kathy Wegel from FOSSR discovered a study made by SJRWMD in 2001: (Technical Publication SJ2001-3) entitled Assessing the Potential Occurrence of Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species in the Upper St. Johns River Basin written by the SJRWMD’s scientists, Marc C. Minno, Ph.D., Steven J. Miller, and Kimberli J. Ponzio which evaluated Sand Lakes in (See http://sjr.state.fl.us/technicalreports/tpubs1.html#2001).  This study ranked 29 project areas, including the Sand Lakes area as to their size, habitat diversity, and the potential occurrence of rare, threatened, or endangered species all of which are critical for their management.

This 53 page study found that although the Sand Lakes project is relatively small compared to other project areas examined, it contained some of the rarest and most variety of habitat types surveyed that are critical for some wildlife species.  This report should have been provided to the Governing Board before they were asked to vote on whether the Sand Lakes Tract was needed for conservation purposes.  Instead, the Governing Board was repeatedly told by SJRWMD staff that Sand Lake was “pretty average” environmentally. This is simply untrue by their own report.

In fact, St. Johns best biologists’ reported that Sand Lakes has the following10 of the 13 commonly analyzed habitats:

Agriculture & Disturbed Lands33 Acres
Shrub & Brushlands354 Acres
Dry Prairies/Savannahs322 Acres
Pine Flatwoods153 Acres
Hardwood Hammocks10 Acres
Xeric Oaks5 Acres
Wet Prairies145 Acres
Freshwater Marshes155 Acres
Shrub Wetlands42 Acres
Forested Wetlands116 Acres
Total for Sand Lakes1,355 Axcres

Interestingly only 33 acres are listed as agriculture and disturbed lands. 

In our county, Sand Lakes and Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area ranked first of six other parcels.  In the whole six counties Upper Basin (Indian River, Osceola, Brevard, Orange, Seminole, and Volusia) only 6 of the 29 parcels (21%) ranked higher than Sand Lakes! Not the average SJRWMD said!

In our county, Sand Lakes ranks first in potential to support 149 rare or listed species (e.g. peregrine falcons, snail kites, wood storks, Fl. scrub jays, sandhill cranes, crested caracaras, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and wading birds), and 2nd of 29 in the six county area.  Only Bull Creek Management Area was higher, and this was because it has 21,759 acres verses 1,335 for Sand Lakes.

The last sentence of the publication’s Conclusion  says it all: “Large project areas such as the Lake Poinsett/Canaveral Management Area …Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, and St. Johns Marsh Conservation Area have the greatest number of different habitats and thus hold the greatest potential for harboring rare plants and animals.  However, areas that are smaller, but relatively rich in natural communities, such as the Sand Lakes Restoration Area, may also be very important for some species.”  If the Governing Board had this information it may well have made a different determination on September 11th. 

Because this report was only discovered after the Governing Board meeting, both PIAS/FOSSR/Cox and IRC, filed a joint motion to supplement the record that will be provided to the Governor and Cabinet, asking that the report be included.  Astoundingly, the SJRWMD is adamantly opposed to its own report being provided to the Governor and Cabinet.  They not only opposed our request to supplement the record, they even opposed us attaching a copy of the report to the motion! 

Crested Caracara by Bob Montanaro.

The stakes are high here as the decision to divest the public of its ownership of the Sand Lakes tract places all our Florida public lands in jeopardy for future sale at the whim of the SJRWMD Board.  SJRWMD has misinterpreted Florida’s Constitution and Laws and did not provided unbiased scientific analysis.  Unfortunately, this was done solely to avoid a threatened suit and is an example of giving away public conservation lands for a future private development (see box below, for further reasons).

Many of you have written great letters already and made a donation, but if you have not and if you as a taxpayer and conservationist are so outraged by 1) the decision to betray the public trust by giving an ecologically significant piece of public  land to development and 2) that the SJRWMD is so hell bent on giving away our public land that its lawyers would try to prevent the governor and cabinet from considering its own technical report, please email the Governor and Cabinet via Aides (See below for addresses and phone numbers. Call our office for assistance.)

We thank those who have generously donated nearly $1,000 for our legal fees in fighting the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Sand Lakes-Corrigan Land Exchange. Our legal expenses will be around $8,000.  Therefore, if you have not given please consider a donation to PIAS. 

Also consider emailing or calling the Aides of the Governor and Cabinet:

Diana Sawaya-Crane  (diana.sawaya-crane@eog.myflorida.com) (850)488-5152
Yvonne Gsteiger (yvonne.gsteiger@fldfs.com) (850) 413-2825
Jim Boxold (boxoldj@doacs.state.fl.us); (850) 410-6747
Kent Perez (kent.perez@myfloridalegal.com) (850) 245-0145

The street address for all is: The Capitol, Tallahassee Fl. 32399.

 Citing one of the numerous reasons why the Sand Lakes Tract exchange is a bad decision for the citizens of Indian River County: 

  • The subject property, Sand Lakes, which is to be traded to the Corrigan family, was purchased with tax funds for the purpose of conservation in 1999.
  • In a 2001 SJRWMD report authored by their own top three biologists to assess the potential occurrence of rare, threatened, and endangered species in the Upper St. Johns River Basin, SJRWMD ranked the property 3 out of 9 properties it owned in Indian River County.
  • Nothing about the property has changed.  It is still an important piece of property for conservation.  In fact, it is so important that the county wanted to partner with SJRWMD but they said they would do it alone, but now they give the county no opportunity to have first option to buy it.
  • The property is in an important wildlife corridor to the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park.
  • The property is habitat for endangered species peregrine falcons, snail kites, wood storks, Fl. Scrub jays, sand hill cranes, crested caracaras, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and wading birds.
  • The property is situated to be a gateway for Fellsmere expansion (allowing Corrigan to have extensive tracts of contiguous lands with Fellsmere) down the west side of I-95.
  • It is a bad precedent for a conservation agency to decide that it is OK to sell or trade conservation lands purchased by public funds set aside for this purpose.
  • It is also a bad business practice (encouraging future intimidation) to settle a threatened lawsuit without entering a court of law.  If the Corrigan’s deserve damages for “the flooding of their land” then let the court decide.  Then fair priced damages can come from the entire district, as they should, instead of from our county alone.
  • There was no consulting with local officials until deal was made. 
  • Most important Staff did not listen to their own Biologists who rank Sand Lake in the top 1/3 of both the Upper Basin and in Indian River County in their Technical Publication SJ2001-3, which is on line at www.sjrwmd.com

Indian River County has no representation on the SJRWMD Governing Board.  The only way for our voice to be heard is to loudly protest this land swap.

Orlando Sentinel had a great editorial in Oct 28th

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