Posted on Sun, June 5, 2005

Turtle rescuer given a new set of wheels

The truck replaces one stolen last month

Turtle lovers can sleep more soundly tonight.

Matt Aresco, champion of turtles and other wildlife trying to cross North Monroe Street, has a new truck to transport them, thanks to dozens of his supporters, including County Commissioner Dan Winchester.

Winchester lured Aresco to his Lake Jackson home Saturday by telling him he needed help with an alligator. Aresco, 42, instead walked into his own surprise birthday party in Winchester's back yard. While basking in the birthday spotlight, Aresco got a bigger shock as Winchester drove a blue-and-white 1976 GMC truck into the yard and handed Aresco the keys.

"What the heck?!" Aresco said as it drove up. "You've got to be kidding me."

The truck is almost a spitting image of his 1977 restored Jimmy that was stolen from Tallahassee Mall's parking lot last month. It also has a stronger engine than his old one.

"It's nice to see some pure happiness now and then," said Judy St. Petery as Aresco walked around the truck. He rubbed his head in disbelief.

St. Petery and many Lake Jackson residents consider Aresco a significant ally in protecting the environment. She calls him when turtles that he has tagged show up on her land.

Aresco, who recently received his doctorate in biology from Florida State University, started his crusade to save Lake Jackson turtles after seeing many killed by cars on North Monroe Street, also U.S. Highway 27.

Since 2000, he has carried at least 9,000 turtles across the highway separating Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson in his truck. He also maintains a plastic sheet fence in an effort to steer turtles to one culvert underneath the road.

Aresco wants to expand the passageway underneath the highway. His Lake Jackson Ecopassage campaign recently got a boost when the Capital Region Transportation Agency approved $3.4 million to start a three-month environmental study of four culverts tunneled underneath a one-mile stretch of the highway.

"He deserves this so much," fellow turtle enthusiast Tom Nelson said about Aresco's new truck. He considers Aresco his hero because of his selfless service.

Although the gift was a surprise for Aresco, he had already picked the vehicle out. He found it for sale for $7,450 on the Internet and had planned to fly to Independence, Mo., to pick it up. But friend Bruce Ryan conspired with the seller to buy it before he could go. Winchester and others paid for the vehicle and spent another $650 to have it shipped in time for his birthday.

"This is unbelievable," said Aresco, who plans to continue doing conservation work in North Florida. "I can't believe all these people care about me this much."