Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Proposed landfill within land earmarked for Fla. panthers

Monday 21 May 2007

The location where a developer wants to build a regional garbage landfill in eastern Charlotte County is in the same area a federal agency has earmarked for re-establishing breeding pairs of the endangered Florida panther. But whether Omni Waste of Charlotte's proposal -- to build a 300-foot-tall landfill drawing some 240 trucks a day from at least eight counties -- will have adverse impacts on the panther remains undetermined. The site is adjacent to the 74,000-acre Babcock Ranch, which was acquired by the state for $340 million last year. The acquisition was touted for creating a wildlife corridor between the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area to the west and the Fisheating Creek conservation area to the east.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its latest panther recovery plan, which is currently undergoing a final review, calls for the panther's range to be expanded north of the Caloosahatchee River. The Babcock/Fisheating Creek region was identified in a 2006 study by the FWS as one four potential areas where breeding populations of panthers could be re-established.

The Charlotte County Commission will decide at a public hearing set for 2 p.m. Tuesday whether to grant conceptual approval for zoning and comprehensive plan changes to accommodate the proposal. But the county has opted not to consider the landfill a Development of Regional Impact, over the objections of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

If the project were considered a DRI, it would get detailed reviews from a host of experts from local, state and federal environmental agencies, said Dan Trescott, a DRI specialist for the planning council. Such a detailed review of the landfill project is warranted because it would draw truck traffic from across county lines and pose regional environmental hazards, Trescott said.

But Charlotte County has interpreted a state law to indicate landfills are not to be considered DRIs, according to Mike Konefal, the county's community development director. And Omni has obtained a letter from a state Department of Community Affairs staffer confirming that landfills are not DRIs, said Ken Cargill, chief engineer for Omni.

Cargill said he has spoken with the Southwest Florida Conservancy, an environmental organization, about panther concerns. "We know they want to make a safe passageway from Babcock Ranch to the Fisheating Creek site," said Cargill. "We want to be supportive and cooperative, and we want to help." But the 400 to 500 truck trips per day generated by the landfill would pose a danger to panthers, according to a report by county staff.

A handful of male panthers are roaming the Babcock/Fisheating Creek region right now, according to Allen Webb, a project supervisor for the FWS based in the agency's Vero Beach office. "It's great habitat for a lot of different species," Webb said. "In fact, the last female Florida panther to live north of the Caloosahatchee River was living there." That female was killed in the 1970s.

Female panthers have since proven reluctant to swim across the Caloosahatchee River. The vast majority of Florida's 100 surviving panthers are located south of the river. The FWS wants to expand the habitat north because the population of 100 is considered too small to sustain itself, due to genetic problems, Webb said. The Babcock/Fisheating Creek area could support 10 panthers, according to the FWS.

The draft plan calls for transporting female panthers into the area in the future. Before any of the predators would be relocated, the agency would first draft local plans with public input to resolve safety concerns, Webb said. "There's a lot of upfront involvement so people don't feel they are going to be at risk," Webb said.

If Omni finds it must apply for a federal wetlands impact permit, that would trigger a consultation with the FWS about panther impacts, Webb said. But there's only a few, small wetlands on the project site, according to Cargill. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has not conducted a "formal review" of the Omni project, according to Gary Morse, FWC spokesman. However, at the request of a county staffer, one FWC staffer conducted an informal review, he said.

The staffer, Stephanie Rousso, found that 18 species of endangered or threatened animals potentially could be found on the Omni site. "The project site is located within a critical wildlife habitat linkage connecting managed lands such as Babcock Ranch and Fisheating Creek Ecosystem," Rousso said. If the Omni project falls within one of the federal agency's panther zones, the state FWC would examine the proposal, said Darrell Land, panther recovery team leader for the state FWC. But Land said he's received no notice indicating the project's location.

"That's part of what we're really struggling with right now," said Land. "We don't have a real nexus to get involved with this site." Both the state and federal agencies rely on cooperation and negotiation to get property owners to preserve panther habitat. The state can use its Rural Lands Stewardship Program, which calls for property owners to trade environmental assets for development rights, Land said. But enforcement is rare.

"With a critter like the Florida panther, it's difficult to say (that) by developing this 600 acres, they are going to go extinct," Land said. "So, they die the death of a thousand cuts."

http://www.sun-herald.com/Newsstory.cfm?pubdate= 051107&story=tp2ch7.htm&folder=NewsArchive2

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