May 10, 2005

Truck stolen from turtle rescuer

GMC Jimmy held records and equipment


More than 9,000 turtles have received a ride to safety in Matt Aresco's truck, but now their ride is missing.

Aresco's truck was stolen Friday along with the notes and tools he uses to protect turtles. He has been moving turtles, alligators and other wildlife across North Monroe Street since 2000 as part of his Lake Jackson Ecopassage project.

"I'm going to have to replace all the equipment right away," Aresco said. "It's stuff I use every day."

In addition to rescuing turtles, Aresco has advocated the construction of a wildlife underpass under Monroe Street, also known as U.S. Highway 27.

His Lake Jackson Ecopassage campaign has received the attention of statewide media, nationwide environmental magazines and hundreds of Tallahassee schoolchildren.

Meanwhile, the underpass proposal faces a crucial vote by the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency on May 23, Aresco said. If the agency refuses to support the project, it won't receive $3.5 million in federal funding for the project.

Gone along with Aresco's truck are the tools and supplies for maintaining the plastic sheet fence that prevents animals from crossing the highway. He also lost equipment he used to measure and identify the turtles and the log books he used to record the data for the past year.

The truck was stolen outside the Tallahassee Mall on Friday night. He came out of the mall after watching a movie to find only a pile of shattered glass where his locked vehicle had been parked.

He bought the 1977 GMC 10 years ago and restored it because he loved the older Jimmy models.

"It was in perfect condition," he said. He has offered a $500 reward for information leading to the truck's return.

Leon County Commissioner Dan Winchester offered to loan his Chevrolet Blazer to Aresco after he heard the truck was stolen.

"I think when they catch them (whoever stole the truck), they ought to feed 'em to the turtles," Winchester said.

The proposed underpass not only would save turtles, alligators and other wildlife, it would protect motorists who could wreck if they hit the larger turtles and alligators or swerve to avoid them, supporters say.

Aresco said he has carried 9,000 turtles across the road in his truck since 2000. He said that when the road was constructed decades ago, it blocked an important path of movement for turtles and other wildlife.

The highway was built on a berm that separated Lake Jackson from a portion of the water body to the east that has become known as Little Lake Jackson.

The Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency, which is governed by elected officials from Leon, Gadsden and Wakulla counties, was scheduled to vote in March to back an engineering study for the proposed wildlife underpass. But the agency delayed action after some officials questioned whether it was a worthwhile project, Aresco said.

He said there is no downside to the project, which he said would receive federal funding from a program for wildlife crossings.

"It's not going to cost Leon County taxpayers any money at all," Aresco said.

Leon County Commissioner Tony Grippa said he wanted to know at the March meeting whether the federal funds could be used for other environmental projects. He said agency staff couldn't answer the question.

"If this money cannot be used anywhere else but here (for the Lake Jackson Ecopassage), we ought to take the federal funds that are offered us," Grippa said.

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at (850) 599-2253 or