Last week, I traveled to Walton County for a hearing on the proposed South Walton Connector through Point Washington State Forest. Protecting habitat is one of the best ways we can ensure that imperiled wildlife have the resources they need to survive. Speaking up for these vulnerable species and making sure they have a voice when potentially harmful projects come up is an important part of our advocacy work.
A new highway fragmenting the state forest’s largest contiguous tract and its habitat is incompatible with the major or primary purposes for which the lands were acquired: to conserve the unique South Walton County ecosystem linking three state parks, and to protect 25 rare species including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the reticulated flatwoods salamander, the threatened gopher tortoise, eight threatened or endangered plant species and five species of invertebrates. A highway would lead to additional roadkill of these species and would restrict prescribed fire which is necessary to maintain these species’ habitat.
Defenders strongly opposes the establishment of any additional highways through Point Washington State Forest as additional roads are an incompatible use of state lands and could not satisfy the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund’s (Governor and Cabinet) Incompatible Use Policy of Natural Resource Lands. We would actively oppose any additional highways through Point Washington before the Florida Acquisition and Restoration Council and the Board of Trustees.
We recommend the county consider the practicable alternative of widening existing highways and restoring fragmented habitat connectivity to provide a net positive benefit to the state forest. The state has generously supported at least six other county infrastructure requests by transferring 187 acres of state forest land to the county for the Tourist Development Council, Mack Bayou Fire Station, Walton County Sheriff, the Blue Mountain Landfill and for a sewer easement.
Defenders encourages Walton County to not pursue any new highway through Point Washington State Forest and instead focus on improving and creating transportation alternatives to Santa Rosa beaches and restoring habitat connectivity.