As a professional ecologist and conservationist, I would have been hard put back then not to admit that exchanging the Hi-Oaks ranch for the smaller 240-acre Econ Wilderness would have been a win for conservation. But that was before the developers starting hacking up the Hi-Oaks site.
Seminole County purchased the Econ Wilderness from the Clayton family in 1994 for $3.5 million with voter-approved funds, when the site was known as “Hi-Oaks West.” It was selected from among 46 competing proposals specifically because of its outstanding conservation value.
At that time the Claytons also proposed that the county purchase their undisturbed 669-acre “Hi-Oaks East” site for conservation. This is now the “Preserve” site that they are proposing to swap for the Econ Wilderness in The Exchange proposal.
They had the right to clear their property to prepare it for development. Once they executed that right, however, they lost the ability to claim that the site continued to have the same conservation value that it had in 1993.
When Seminole County voters voted in a 1990 referendum to use public funds to purchase conservation land, they could not have envisioned that the Board of County Commissioners would end up considering swapping one of the conservation gems acquired by that program for a piece of cut-over ranchland.
Programs designed to purchase public conservation land in Florida, like the one used to purchase the Econ Wilderness, all are based on prioritizing acquisition of parcels with the highest conservation value.
These values are clearly stated in the Florida Constitution and relevant state statutes, as well as Seminole County documents regarding acquisition and management of conservation lands. Degraded, cut-over parcels do not qualify for purchase by these programs.
In their Exchange proposal, the developers want Seminole County to allow them to swap their degraded property for a prime piece of conservation land. They want us to believe that they are making a huge financial sacrifice in doing so, and that Seminole County is getting a great deal for conservation.
Great conservation deals are what is needed along the prime ecological corridors represented by the Econlockhatchee and Little Econlockhatchee rivers in the area just north of the University of Central Florida.
This area has been identified at the state level for its importance to conservation, and it is also part of an officially designated global biodiversity hotspot, which is a fancy way of saying that it has high biological diversity and also has high development pressure.
The most critical habitats for preserving the region’s remaining biodiversity are the upland pine flatwoods, sandhills and other systems dominated by longleaf pine.
The longleaf pine ecosystem once covered 90 million acres in the southeast but is now a globally threatened ecosystem with only 3% of its original cover remaining.
The Econ Wilderness has excellent examples of longleaf pine ecosystems. The Hi-Oaks ranch site may have had good examples at one time, but the developer converted most of the uplands to pasture and pine plantations, not longleaf pine.
Restoring that degraded site back to anything as valuable for conservation as the Econ Wilderness would be very costly, and The Exchange proposal virtually ignores any mention of these significant restoration costs.
One can envision a land swap that would be a win-win for conservation and development. The submitted Exchange proposal looks more like a win-lose-lose.
It’s a win for the developer and land owners who would make an end run around current development restrictions on their Hi-Oaks ranch property, and who stand to make millions of dollars off their development.
It’s a loss for the more that 40,000 annual visitors to the Econ Wilderness Area who will lose ready access to the recreational and educational value of this conservation gem.
And it’s a loss for conservation, not only because it would involve destroying a prime wilderness area, but also because it would set a terrible precedent that will constitute a continuing threat to conservation in Seminole County and beyond.
Patrick Bohlen is a professor of biology and director of the arboretum and natural resources program at UCF.