|The President’s Hoot|
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
PIAS members have a vision: an Audubon center near a natural habitat or park drawing many visitors, allowing hands-on educational observations. This center would effectively open their eyes to the environmental issues; thus leading to appreciation, interest and advocacy in helping preserve and protect the wildlife and these natural treasures.
PIAS requested to partner with Indian River County to build the Audubon House at the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area (ORCA) – to recruit and train volunteers to help manage county-owned conservation lands, presently cared for by two over-worked county employees . It would certainly be mutually beneficial to Indian River County government, all of our county citizens, and PIAS as well. We are supported by many donations and pro bono contributions We are fully funded and ready for construction, with the promise of more funds for operation. Yet despite our having the full approval from the State of Florida, Florida Communities Trust (FCT), who is co-owner of the proposed site, on Tuesday, April 6, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted 4-1 to turn it down. Commissioner Gary Wheeler voted for Audubon House and for that we are grateful.
PIAS offered a $335,000 (donations plus huge pro bono contributions) nature center on an abandoned citrus grove to recruit and train volunteers for the county’s 10,000 acres of conservation lands. This would have fulfilled the county’s 2004 commitment to FCT to provide a picnic pavilion and nature trail. In addition, we were going to satisfy the county’s obligation to FCT by providing at least 24 educational programs per year on site by experienced professionals. Since the six-year-old commitment was made, there has not been one county class, picnic pavilion, or nature trail as promised in the county’s grant application. PIAS was asking the county to commit up to $90,000 toward building the parking lot and the boardwalk for access by people with special needs, and lease the one acre for the Audubon House for one dollar a year. These funds would have come from impact fees (not taxpayer dollars), which if not spent will be lost. PIAS’ contribution would have been greater than a 3 to 1 match in funds and a long-term commitment to the county’s citizens.
Human physical contact and intimacy with nature are fading in our high technological age. Yet folks who take our training can learn not only about global warming, oil spills, fish kills and the continued degradation of our lagoon’s water quality in their own neighborhood. They can enjoy an outdoors experience essential to making more citizens the watchdogs of our environment and joining us in our advocacy efforts. There are great birding opportunities with a bald eagle nest nearby and also a colonial bird nesting island rookery right offshore. The Herb Kale nature trail is available for botanical studies.
It is unclear why the BCC voted against Audubon House at ORCA on April 6th, when they supported the concept on September 22nd. We believe a major reason was PIAS continued objection to the expansion of the Oslo Road boat ramp. We still think the county should not remove three acres of mangroves for a parking lot in a conservation area, or dredge to the Inter-coastal Waterway in an Aquatic Preserve that would harm the county’s best seagrasses and the best nurseries for our now-endangered fish populations like snook, spotted sea trout, redfish, etc. Knowledgeable persons in fishing understand that to protect the dwindling fish populations, it is essential to protect their nesting sites, one of the major intact areas not damaged as much as others in the lagoon by development and runoff from Lake Okeechobee. These seagrass beds are extremely shallow, ideal for fish nurseries and feeding the thriving bird populations that nest on adjacent islands. Moreover, this expansion and destruction flies in the face of the county’s own manatee protection plan.
Please be assured that your board’s shared vision for Audubon House — as a resource and base for training naturalists, hosting visitors and reaching out and educating the public about conservation issues — remains alive and intact. This setback is temporary and your board is already reviewing alternative sites for the nature education center, and opening discussions with potentially new partners and opportunities.
We need a place where the excitement of people learning about the outdoors, experiencing wildlife, as well as having a place for wildlife photography, art, and natural exhibitions and demonstrations can occur. We need a place where people can get answers to their pressing questions about the wildlife around them and step out into our amazing Florida habitat…where ornithological, native plant, and ecological conferences and joint courses with the university might occur, increasing our voice and standing in the community…leading to…a center with a vision for bringing the community together to protect, broaden, and enhance everyone’s quality of life. The more activities at our Audubon House, the more folks in the community will want to join Audubon, which will nurture our education, public awareness and advocacy mission.
Perhaps the county commission will come to see that this is a very good deal for the citizens of Indian River County. It would be welcome if the county commission should rethink their decision and let us help the county fulfill its obligations for nature education, enhanced ecotourism, and expanded recreational opportunities.
We welcome your ideas for any new creative paths for the bright future of Audubon House.