By DOTTY NIST
Representatives of the Florida Forest Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have stated that they have received no official request from Walton County for a road through Point Washington State Forest.
A paved, two-lane road through the forest is included in the countywide mobility plan soon to undergo final hearings by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). The proposed road is one of over 200 projects contained in the mobility plan.
Envisioned to run along a power line easement within the forest, the road would serve as a new connection between CR-30A and U.S. 98 in the Seagrove area.
Mike Mathis, manager for the Chipola Forestry Center Field Unit, which serves Walton and six other counties in the region, commented that Florida Forest Service personnel have stayed “fully involved” with Walton County meetings regarding the mobility plan in order to keep informed on all elements of the plan.
However, in response to a question, Mathis said that Walton County has not presented the forest service with any official request for a road through the state forest.
In 2019, the Florida Forest Service had been asked to comment on an Advance Notification Package for a South Walton Connector Road Project Development and Environment (PD&E) study, which included alternatives for roads through Point Washington State Forest, among other options.
In an April 19, 2019, letter to Greg Garrett, project manager for the PD&E, then-State Forester/Director Jim Karels had provided an official response stating that the Florida Forest Service “does not favor the construction of a new road on or across Point Washington State Forest…”
Karels retired from the Florida Forest Service in Feb. 2020.
Mathis indicated that the April 19, 2019, letter “remains the position” of the Florida Forest Service.
Karels’s letter read, in part, “The forest was acquired as part of the South Walton Ecosystem Conservation and Recreation Lands project with primary goals to: 1) conserve a part of this unique coast and the forests to the north; 2) protect several rare plants and animals, including the largest population of the endangered Curtiss’ sandgrass in the world; and 3) provide residents and tourists in a scenic area in which to enjoy recreational activities. Additionally, Point Washington directly abuts three state parks, providing connectivity and more contiguous conservation land. Construction of a new road across the forest is inconsistent with the purpose for acquisition and would significantly impact the Florida Forest Service’s ability to properly manage the forest and its resources.”
Karels commented on the existing fragmentation of the Point Washington State Forest west of U.S. 331 and CR-83 and noted that a new road would further fragment the forest in its “most contiguous portion.” He stated that a new road through the forest would increase existing challenges with the use of prescribed fire in the forest, “very likely” causing the forest service to reduce the use of prescribed fire, which could lead to an increased incidence and intensity of wildfires and also degradation of habitat.
Karels also commented on effects of road construction in the forest on wetlands within the forest’s “mosaic network of uplands and interwoven wetlands.”
“Any wetland that is altered or removed to build a road,” he wrote, “will have a negative impact on the water quality and quantity in the area; reducing water for aquifer recharge and increasing contaminants in runoff.”
Among other concerns, he spoke of the “abundant” bears in the park and warned that road construction in the forest would “almost certainly” result in an increase of bears being hit by vehicles.
Karels also pointed to the likelihood of negative impacts on trails or campground access roads that would require their relocation, along with a decrease or degradation of hunting opportunities due to more vehicle traffic and noise.
Contacted by the Herald/Breeze about the proposed forest road, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Deputy Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta responded on April 16, “DEP has not received an application from Walton County for an easement for permanent access to state-owned lands.”
She described the process with such an application, when submitted, as follows: “DEP would process the application and bring it before the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which would vote on whether the easement is consistent with the Board of Trustees’ Linear Facilities Policy. If it is approved, it will most likely require a net positive benefit based on an appraisal.”
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners has scheduled the first reading of the ordinance to approve the mobility plan for April 27. The reading is to follow the 9 a.m. regular county commission meeting on that date at the South Walton Annex. The second and final reading of the ordinance is anticipated for May 2021 or later.