When I first visited Econ River Wilderness Area a good twenty years ago with my friend Joan, it was a regular stop on her popular TGIF summer hikes.
The reason? Nearby restaurants. It was easy to get people to join you for a hike on a sultry summer evening when you gathered afterwards to enjoy a meal.
It was also easy for Joan to get to, since it was right around the corner from her job at the University of Central Florida.
At the time, it bounded the edge of Alafaya Woods. But it was only a couple blocks away from the press of strip malls and subdivisions along SR 434.
Twenty years later, there is a Dollar General within sight of the trailhead. And bulldozers aimed at its pines.
Drainage and Development
On one hike at Econ River Wilderness, the trails were flooded. Unusually so. So much so, that we had to call off the hike.
Now it’s not that you should expect dry feet here, since part of the point of preserving 238 acres in this bustling area was to protect a natural drainage area.
Moisture trickles down through the well-managed pine flatwoods through a bayhead swamp towards the Econlockhatchee River.
A deeply scoured floodplain channel, curved by erosion, feeds the river. In its basin are ancient, stunted cypresses.
The Econlockhatchee River rises in swamps south of Hal Scott Preserve, and flows northward to meet the St. Johns near SR 46.
As more development occurs along its floodplain, more water is being sluiced into the river, as there is less unpaved ground available for percolation of rainfall.
This is magnified during any rain event that drops six inches or more at once, and of course during our tropical storms and hurricanes.
Something was awry on this visit in 2003, however. We could only hike in the flatwoods immediately adjoining the trailhead. It wasn’t possible to drop to a lower elevation.
It was under water. Hundreds of trees were dying from having their roots in standing water for far too long. Up to 4 feet of water.
The culprit? Development of a new subdivision to the south, just over the Orange County line. Wetlands filled without a permit. Land elevated for a road.
All of this changed the hydrology of the surrounding area, pouring water into the preserve. Drowning gopher tortoise burrows. Accelerating pine bark beetle problems.
And making it impossible to hike the trails. It took many years and cooperation between St. Johns Water Management District and the two counties to restore Econ River Wilderness.
Between the dead and dying trees and the dead palmettos, I didn’t return to Econ River Wilderness for many years. My next hike there was six years after the flooding.
I was impressed to see how the forest had healed. It was early fall, and the wildflowers were ablaze in the flatwoods.
The reds of Indian paintbrush and the feathery purple plumes of blazing star made for a magnificent show, accented by delicate pink sabatia.
Being able to continue beyond the bayhead this time, I was delighted to find a pine lily in bloom.
The forest didn’t heal on its own. It was obvious that Seminole County put some serious effort into habitat restoration in the uplands.
What was once a tunnel of oak scrub opened up into a majestic longleaf pine forest with an open understory on the undulating terrain.
What wasn’t there on my initial visit, however, now loomed just over the fence lines where the trail steered you to the property boundary. Houses.
Selling Public Land?
My blood boils every time I read another news article about federal, state, or local government selling off land set aside for the public trust.
It happens nationwide, but it hits me harder here at home. Central Florida is drowning in a sea of subdivisions. Not just in one county, but all of them. At once.
As suburbia grows denser, displaced wildlife needs a place to go. And people need green space to escape the human anthills that are forming.
In the case of Econ River Wilderness, they are calling this a land swap. That’s a term often used to soften the blow of taking public land away from the public.
Per the county’s own comprehensive plan, lands east of the Econlockhatchee River and Lake Jesup are zoned as rural. The idea is to afford some protection from wall-to-wall development.
A developer who submitted a plan to the county for cattle pastures just east of the river wanted to develop a densely packed subdivision. The county, based on their comprehensive plan, turned him down.
He sued. To settle the lawsuit, the developer’s legal team has offered to swap their 669 acres of land for what they call “the county property,” 238 acres immediately west of their land outside the rural boundary.
That 238 acres is the Econ River Wilderness Area. And the Seminole County Commission is entertaining the offer. Surveyors of all types are swarming over this public land right now. We ran into several as we hiked and biked the preserve yesterday.
The Wrong Precedent
Giving away a wilderness area held in the public trust and managed for habitat restoration and wildlife conservation? Not the answer.
The fact that this is even being suggested, or considered? An outrageous betrayal of the taxpayers who funded its purchase and its subsequent decades of land management. It now sports one of the finest longleaf pine and wiregrass habitats in the region.
As this recent Orlando Sentinel Editorial points out, it’s a legal manuever. A way to push the Seminole County Commission towards a solution that benefits the developer.
A Green Solution
The Seminole County Commission should ignore this land swap offer from the developer. It is entirely within the county commission’s rights to simply say no. And they should.
But if they feel a need to settle the lawsuit – which as the Orlando Sentinel points out, the county should prevail on, since their decision is based on the county charter – there is a solution.
It’s not a grand one, and it sets a precedent that benefits developers in general. But it is a practical one.
Long ago, the county set a rural boundary in their comprehensive plan. But let’s take a hard look on the ground at what it means.
Here’s the map. Notice all the wiggly lines along Oviedo. Those encompass subdivisions that anyone who visits Little Big Econ State Forest sees all the time.
The massive ones along CR 419 south of the canoe put-in down to Taintsville, and the zero-lot-line subdivisions along Snow Hill Road that cozy right up to the state forest at the Flagler Trail trailhead.
The land in question – the subject of this “swap” – is the bump out on the map on the lower left. It lies west of CR 419.
When we drive to Oviedo from SR 50, what do we see? Zero-lot-line subdivisions in Orange County along both sides of the road south of Lake Pickett Road. Right up to the county line. Immediately south of this property in question.
If the county commission cuts that corner out of the rural boundary, it benefits the developer. It allows some version of the developer’s plans to go forward. Density should be constrained. No expectation of an extension of McCulloch Rd over the river should be allowed.
In return, the county should recieve a strip of conservation land buffering the Econlockhatchee River to the east. Not just wide enough to buffer the river floodplain from development impacts – which is already required by law – but also to provide a broad corridor of natural lands.
Think of it first as an expansion of the Econ River Wilderness to the east side of the river. And a floodplain buffer. And a wildlife corridor connecting to Econlockhatchee Sandhills Natural Area in Orange County.
But it can be more. An Econ River Greenway.
Use McCulloch Rd as the access point. Create a trailhead and a bike path east to the river. Build a bike trail bridge, and send the path up this new strip of conservation land. Tie it into the master plan of the development so it extends to a trailhead on SR 419 towards Chuluota.
Creating such a greenway would connect these new residents to UCF by a bike ride through the woods. But it works both ways. A greenway would give urban residents near UCF a way to safely bike to Chuluota.
Tie in an extension of the Flagler Trail from the north and you’ve created a protected corridor for them to reach Little Big Econ State Forest and the public lands that connect to it.
Get the public to understand, through recreation, how important our wild green spaces are as Central Florida grows more crowded. And give them a way to reach those public lands without getting in their car.
Thank you to local residents who contacted us to make John and I aware that the Seminole County Commission is discussing this land swap idea put forward by the developer.
As former residents of the county, and people who love our wild lands and green spaces, we want you to know that we don’t want to see public lands preserved for wildlife and recreation given away or destroyed. For any reason.
Learn more about the citizen-led effort to protect the Econ River Wilderness.
Explore Econ River Wilderness. It is open to hiking, biking, and equestrian use.