Originally published January 10, 2009

Lake Jackson Ecopassage Advances At A Turtle's Pace

By Mark Hohmeister

Anything worth having is worth waiting for. Just ask Matt Aresco.

He was starting out as a doctoral student at Florida State University when he took up the mission of creating an ecopassage at Lake Jackson. That's a way for wildlife to get safely from the main lake to Little Lake Jackson, which lies across U.S. Highway 27.

Now he's Dr. Matthew Aresco. He has gotten married, had a son, and been enjoying his job as director of Nokuse Plantation in Walton County for three years. And the ecopassage is still in the works.

The issue is simple. Animals 60 species worth, by his count keep getting smooshed on that short stretch of U.S. 27. They range from small turtles to 8-foot alligators, from otters to bobcats to beavers.

I didn't ask if humans were among the 60, but it's possible. Of course, an 8-foot gator is a safety hazard almost anywhere, and especially on a highway, but I also worry about the good friend who will stop her van anywhere to save a turtle, or the niece who will rescue baby possums from the dead mother's pouch.

A low sign saying "Watch Out For Big Trucks" probably won't dissuade a turtle from seeking new territory, so we humans tried a backup plan. In March of 2000, Aresco and an army of volunteers set up low, fabric fences along the highway. The idea was to force the animals through a 13-foot-wide culvert that goes under the highway.

There are two problems: The temporary fence needs constant maintenance, and some animals say, an ornery 8-foot gator aren't keen on hiking a mile north to the culvert, so they simply crawl over the fence.

The solution is a permanent ecopassage, which will include 4-foot barriers of composite sheet piling (like you see on seawalls or island greens on golf courses) along 0.9 miles of the road between Clara Kee Boulevard south of the lake to Tower Road just north of it. The project also will add two culverts, about 400 feet apart. They have to be big enough to allow light to pass under the road, because animals like people are leery of venturing into a dark, close tunnel.

There is a similar and successful ecopassage in Payne's Prairie near Gainesville, but this would be the first in North Florida. Oh, and the cost will be about $6 million.

Standing at the side of U.S. 27 at about 8:30 on a recent morning, it was hard to imagine crossing the road on all fours, as a turtle would. (You've heard the one about the turtle who is mugged by a gang of snails. Asked to describe his assailants, he says, "I don't know, it all happened so fast!")

It's also hard to imagine that you're standing next to the only lake designated as a Florida aquatic preserve. If you face north and turn to the right, the lake is beautiful. A coot swims near the boat ramp, and a duck flies overhead. But turn to the left, and all you see is pavement and traffic.

The existing fabric animal barrier is buried in the brush near the ramp, but farther north it's easy to see about 15 feet from the road. It's also easy to see that it's just a temporary solution.

The permanent ecopassage has gotten to the design stage, and the Florida Department of Transportation invited residents to check out the plan recently. Tommie Speights, public information director of FDOT's District 3, said that $2.9 million in federal enhancement funds have been set aside for the project but that it's not fully funded.

Though the need is obvious, so are the difficulties in getting money for anything these days. Make it $6 million for reptiles and it gets more difficult. When I mentioned this column to a co-worker, he screwed up his face and said, "FSU is talking about laying off 200 people and we're protecting turtles?"

Well, yes.

First, of course, it's not the same dollars. But more than that, this project says something about us.

It says that Tallahassee cares about the environment. It says that we don't think one of the prettier entrances to our city should be lined with the carcasses of wild animals.

Aresco estimates that 9,000 turtles alone have been saved by the fence since 2000. He and the volunteers including a private donor who gave $400,000 to buy land for the ecopassage are willing to keep at it.

"My goal is to just keep the temporary fencing working properly" while the funding gets worked out, Aresco said.

Though Aresco thinks construction may be five years away, he says, "It's fantastic that we're getting closer."

Those are the words of a patient man. He's already waited nearly 10 years. Maybe he'll have another child or two by then, or save another few thousand animals. If we get the ecopassage, it will be worth the wait.