By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Efforts to preserve Split Oak Forest from being divided by Osceola Parkway are in full swing as regional transportation officials weigh options for expanding the toll road.
Dozens of local residents and environmental groups made their case to protect the
1,700-acre conservation area before the Osceola County Commission earlier this month.
Orange and Osceola counties jointly purchased the land nearly 20 years ago for $8.4 million as a nature reserve and recreation area. Hiking and equestrian trails criss-cross the pristine habitat, which the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has restored with prescribed fires and exotic plant removal.
Improvements to Split Oak, which straddles both counties near Lake Nona, have allowed populations of gopher tortoises, Florida sc-rub jays and Florida panthers to grow there alongside the booming development in the area.
Advocates said the cost to continue prescribed burns at Split Oak would rise considerably should Osceola Parkway bisect it. They fear the forest would no longer be the “gem” it’s become since taxpayers first invested in it.
“Publicly purchased lands are there to be preserved in perpetuity and not be damaged the way a road going through would do,” said Kissimmee resident Larry Rosen, president of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon, one of about 20 people who addressed the commission at its Nov. 6 meeting.
The Osceola Parkway eastward extension is tied to long-term growth plans in the region. The Central Florida Expressway Authority is considering several proposals, including one that would run straight through Split Oak.
The continued expansion of commercial and residential development in Lake Nona is expected to usher in tens of thousands of new residents to the area in the next decade. Large landowners include Tavistock Development, which created Lake Nona, and Deseret Ranch, a 300,000-acre chunk of land the Mormon Church eventually intends to sell to developers.
Osceola County commissioners in 2015 adopted a blueprint for the future that would transform 133,000 acres of Deseret ranchland into a major new urban area of 500,000 people.
“I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the way our county is developed without responsible consideration for irreplaceable natural infrastructure that are assets to our community,” St. Cloud resident and volunteer wildlife firefighter Valerie Anderson told the commission.
“It’s really unique and we’re asking for your help to protect this park from the proposed Osceola Parkway extension,” said Anderson, a mapping consultant who started a Friends of Split Oak Forest page on Facebook earlier this year. It meets regularly for hiking and lobbying efforts.
Advocates for the forest told Osceola County commissioners that their counterparts in Orange County are helping save Split Oak.
“We think that if the political will is there, that you can work with CFX and landowners to find a way that this 1,700 acres of the thousands can be protected from being divided,” said Charles Lee, with Audubon Florida.
Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins represents the district that includes Split Oak Forest. Hawkins is also one of 10 members of the Board of Governors for the CFX. He could not be reached for comment.
Conservation groups also have said Split Oak is integral to maintaining contiguous natural lands up and down Florida that animals – including the Florida black bear and panther – use to migrate around the state.
“We’re asking you to support us, go to CFX and say you don’t want this expressway going through Split Oak Forest,” said Susan Arnold, with the Lake Mary Jane Alliance. “I don’t think anyone here can run for re-election and say ‘I put an expressway through a forest’ and have people be excited about it.”