Posted on Tue, May. 24, 2005

Wildlife underpass gets early nod

Next steps: studies, try for federal money

It's hard to imagine which scenario is scarier for a Florida soft-shelled turtle - crossing a busy U.S. Highway 27 or waking up and being surrounded by a group of Leon County politicians.

One unlucky reptile, recently rescued after being hit by a vehicle, found itself in both situations Monday as the lead regional transportation agency approved a $3.4-million proposal to save other animals who make the dangerous trek across U.S. 27 to get to Lake Jackson.

Some were concerned the idea of a Lake Jackson Ecopassage might be abandoned after a vote was delayed by the board in March, but a group of about 20 children who showed up to advocate for the passage - and the turtle - made sure the proposal didn't die.

"This issue isn't about just spending money to save turtles. This is about environmental safety and motorist safety," said County Commissioner Dan Winchester, who has been pushing the issue. "Sometimes it takes a lot of public input to get people to see that."

The unanimous vote starts a three-month, environmental-impact study of the ecopassage, which will include four culverts tunneled underneath the highway and a wall along a mile-long stretch of road. Once the study is complete, efforts will be made to secure federal funding, which could take two years.

When the highway was built decades ago, it separated Lake Jackson into two parts. Currently, wildlife use the lone existing culvert to get from one side of Lake Jackson to the other or risk their lives by crossing the busy road.

Winchester said the ecopassage also would avoid tragedy; in several incidents around the state, motorists who swerved to avoid wildlife were involved in fatal accidents.

Matt Aresco, a local biologist who presented the problem to county commissioners in 2002, has erected a small fence along U.S. 27 to redirect turtles and other wildlife who would cross the road. He checks the road daily to help animals cross and make repairs to his makeshift fence, which is easily damaged.

He estimated about 40 different species of reptiles and amphibians and 16 types of mammals would use the ecopassage.

"This is a rare opportunity for the citizens and government to solve a major environmental problem that was created decades ago," he said. "It feels great that we are finally moving ahead with this phase of the project."

But you have to excuse the animal most likely to be affected by the decision for not being too enthusiastic.

After a short speech by a student from the Cornerstone Learning Community about why the ecopassage was important, Aresco pulled the 20-pound soft-shelled turtle out of a large holding box.

As he lifted the reptile to show board members the type of animal that would use the passageway, the turtle released a low hiss.

From the scratches on its dark-colored shell and the chunk missing from its tail, the turtle may have still been smarting from an encounter with a vehicle just a few days before.

Or it could have been because she was carrying about 25 eggs in her soft underbelly.

Aresco said the turtle, which was at least 25 years old, and her babies may have been just moments away from death had he not found her. Florida soft-shelled turtles can live to be well over 50 years old.

"That's if we help them across the street," Aresco said.