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State Conservation Lands That Are Home To Endangered Bird Could Be On The Chopping Block

florida grasshopper sparrow.jpg
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A state agency is considering designating large tracts of state-owned lands as "surplus," including sections that are home to a near-extinct bird endemic to Florida. Surplus lands can be made available for public sale or trade, or used in ways that differ from their original intention as conservation lands.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is in the process of assessing the use of its approximately 750,000 acres of fee-owned lands across Central and South Florida. The SFWMD is looking at five regions individually as part of a collective effort to assess all fee-owned lands by mid-year. They'll look at non-fee lands later in the year. 

The agency is currently taking public comments on more than 190,000 acres in the Kissimmee/Okeechobee Assessment Region, which includes the Lake Okeechobee Watershed, the Kissimmee River, the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and several unincorporated parcels. Included in this cluster are a few small sections of land in northwest Palm Beach County.

The under-review Kissimmee/Okeechobee region is home to the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow which lives only in Florida's dry prairie. The state originally was home to 1.2 million acres of dry prairie and now has about 100,000 acres, according to best estimates. 

It is believed there are less than 200 of the highly-specialized subspecies remaining in the wild. In a WLRN story last month, biologist Dr. Reed Noss said habitat loss has been a chief contributing factor to the bird's near extinction. 

Some of the lands under consideration for surplus designation fall within the Florida grasshopper sparrow's breeding range and are considered vital habitat for the bird. Read more about the plight of the Florida grasshopper sparrow here

The SFWMD has said is it "committed to making the land assessment transparent and providing multiple opportunities for public involvement." To that end, it is accepting public comments on the lands through Monday, March 18. Comments must be submitted online and users must use a separate form to comment on each parcel of land. The SFWMD also is holding two public meetings to discuss the project: at 10 a.m. Friday, March 8, at the SFWMD Okeechobee Service Station and 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 12, at the SFWMD St. Cloud Field Station. 

The land assessment comes in the midst of a Florida Legislative Session 2013 that includes several bills that make possible the sale of state conservation lands