Whenever I sing the praises of Florida, I always mention its award-winning state park system. Like the state itself, the parks system has features that are both impressive (from the soaring dunes of Topsail Hill to the depths of the Devil’s Millhopper) and quirky (mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, Lu the Hippo at Homosassa etc.)
Our state forests get far less acclaim, perhaps because they lack mermaids and hippos. There are nearly 40 of them, totaling more than 1 million acres.
Like our parks, the state forests are home to a variety of imperiled animals and plants, not to mention furnishing a travel route for wide-ranging critters like black bears. Humans benefit too — the forests offer campsites and hiking and biking trails, just like the parks. They also help us fight climate change by soaking up lots of the carbon dioxide that’s destroying our planet.
Yet some people can’t see the forests for the — well, not the trees, exactly, but the acreage underneath. To them that land appears empty, just waiting for human “improvements.”
Roadbuilders are the biggest offenders. The Florida Department of Transportation is building the completely superfluous Suncoast 2 Parkway through the Withlachoochee State Forest. The DOT also wants to build its legislatively mandated Northern Turnpike Extension through Goethe State Forest.
After I wrote a recent column mentioning opposition to the turnpike, someone from the Panhandle contacted me to ask why I wasn’t writing about a similar situation there. My tipster urged me to investigate Walton County’s efforts to ram a road through Point Washington State Forest.
My first reaction was: They’re STILL trying to do that?
Walton County officials have been complaining about Point Washington State Forest since state officials first established it 30 years ago. Apparently, they haven’t stopped.
“They have wanted their land back since 1992,” said Celeste Cobena, whose Beach to Bay Connection citizens’ group has been lobbying to keep the forest — and its recreational trails — intact.
At one point, Walton County officials wanted to build a whole new town in the middle of it. And they’ve been trying since 2015 to slip a slab of asphalt through it — specifically, a two-lane “connector road” linking State Road 30A and U.S. Highway 98.
County officials argue it’s needed because of the heavy traffic on 30A. Cobena says those traffic jams have resulted from the county’s own pro-development decisions, repeatedly amending its zoning rules to let builders build more than the roads were built to handle.
One of the big backers for building the Point Washington road is a developer named Charles Rigdon of Harbor Capital LLC. I am sure his support has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that such a road would connect to U.S. 98 near an area where he’s been building.
Rigdon scoffed about state forests being worth saving. Before I quote his comments, I must inform you that Rigdon’s ability to express himself is one that even Madonna would envy.
“It’s state forest, not state park,” Rigdon told the Northwest Florida Daily News in 2021. “It’s a glorified corn field. They grow the pine trees, then cut them, then regrow them, then cut them.”
But that’s not what a bunch of state and federal agencies said about it
They strongly objected to the road, citing its impact on the wetlands and wildlife of the area. They pointed out that the recreational trails local residents love would have to be relocated. They cited problems with conducting prescribed burns that would blanket the road in smoke.
Several pointed out that such a road would not just harm the forest but also the state parks that connect to it: Topsail Hill, Deer Lake, and Grayton Beach State Park.
What I found particularly interesting, though, was that one official suggested the road that Walton County was proposing is going the wrong way.
It would not just hurt the forest. It would actually make the area’s traffic WORSE.
Farewell, Emerald City
The story of how Point Washington came to be a state forest is a Florida classic, one told and retold among amazed preservation advocates the way soldiers talk about a famous battle.
As recounted in Clay Henderson’s new book, “Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation,” the forest — along with nearby Topsail Hill — were a package deal of nearly 21,000 acres bought from the St. Joe Co. (more on them in a bit) by a bunch of wheeler-dealers. The price: $182 million.
They announced they were going to build “the Hilton Head of the Gulf,’ with homes, hotels, golf courses, an amusement park, and an airport on land that included more than 6 miles of pristine sugar-sand beaches.
They were going to call it “Emerald City,” just like Dorothy’s destination in “The Wizard of Oz.” This grandiose scheme was backed by a pair of savings-and-loans in Pennsylvania and Texas. Can you see where this story’s going?
From the start, savvy investors saw signs that Emerald City was as solid as a house of cards in a wind tunnel. In 1991, the cards came tumbling down, toppled by more than a dozen grand jury indictments for fraud.
Some people were sentenced to prison. As for the land, it went to the Resolution Trust Corp., which was in charge of liquidating the assets of broke savings-and-loans. The RTC scheduled an auction at the DeFuniak Springs courthouse for an all-or-nothing sale of Emerald City’s land, which included both Topsail Hill and Point Washington.
One man keenly interested in this auction was George Willson of the Nature Conservancy, an organization that often worked with the state to buy land for preservation.
“On May 19, 1992, a few minutes before 11 a.m., George Willson stood by a pay phone in a grocery store across the street from the Walton County Courthouse,” Henderson wrote.
As soon as an aide to then-Gov. Lawton Chiles told him that the Cabinet had authorized him to bid on the property, Willson hung up the phone, crossed the street and arrived at the courthouse at the stroke of 11. The clerk of court stepped out, announced the auction and asked, “What are your bids?”
“$20 million,” Willson replied.
He was the only bidder, so the land went to his organization, which then handed it to the state and got reimbursed. It was quite a coup (not the Jan. 6 kind, either). And such a bargain for the taxpayers, compared to what the wheeler-dealers had paid a few years before.
Later, Willson told Henderson that the Walton County commissioners would be — well, he used another word — ticked off when they learned how much developable property the state was now going to preserve. Sure enough, the county sent a lobbyist to warn Chiles that the purchase would “do no less than cripple their economy.”
While Walton whined, everyone else was ecstatic.
There were dunes so massive that, from offshore, they looked like sails (hence the name Topsail). There were coastal dune lakes, a unique geological feature found in only a few places around the globe. There were wet prairies full of pitcher plants, sundews, and other carnivorous vegetation.
As for critters, there were some 25 rare species including the red-cockaded woodpecker, the reticulated flatwoods salamander, and the gopher tortoise.
In other words, it’s no cornfield.
Down with panhandlers!
Point Washington and its many trees used to belong to the St. Joe Co., once the largest landowner in Florida. The company needed the pines to feed its stinky paper mill in Port St. Joe.
From the 1930s until his death in 1981, the St. Joe Co. was run by a twisted little tightwad named Ed Ball, the most powerful man in the state. In addition to St. Joe, Ball ran the state’s biggest bank, its biggest railroad, and most of the Legislature.
After Ball’s demise, St. Joe’s management realized the company’s future wasn’t in making paper but in developing its vast acreage. The company traded in its mill for a battalion of bulldozers and set to work creating upscale subdivisions, commercial buildings, and resort hotels across its thousands of acres.
St. Joe transformed the land. It created new population centers with designer names like WaterSound and Rosemary Beach, far from the Panhandle’s plain-Jane small towns with their bait shops and Piggly Wiggly stores.
The company even copyrighted the term “Florida’s Great Northwest” and tried to get everyone to say that instead of calling the region “the Panhandle.” Company officials didn’t want to be at all associated with (ew!) panhandlers.
Yet to make its plans work, St. Joe needed to panhandle the taxpayers. Company officials persuaded Florida’s powers-that-be to move part of U.S. 98 away from the beach to accommodate their development plans. They also convinced state officials to build them a brand-new airport.
St. Joe succeeded in selling a whole lot of houses, in part because of the beaches, trails, and camping spots offered by the nearby state parks and state forest. Turns out that rather than ruining the Walton economy, preserves are an attraction for the outdoor-minded.
But development by St. Joe and others are putting a whole lot of cars onto once-scenic State Road 30A, one of the prettiest coastal highways you’ll ever encounter.
That road runs east to west. The 2 ½ mile road Walton County has proposed to push through the state forest would run north to south.
A 2019 opposition letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed out that “the predominant demand for traffic flow is east-west, and there is little evidence that this north-south road will reduce congestion or crash rates.”
Or as Cobena told me: “It’s not going to solve the traffic problems they think it’s going to solve. It’s just going to funnel more traffic onto 30A.”
So, what’s the point of the Point Washington road?
“It’s the developers who need the roads,” Cobena said.
All part of the system
I well remember visiting Point Washington State Forest 24 years ago. A photographer and I tagged along with a guy from the Florida Wildlife Federation who appeared to be the world’s leading fan of longleaf pines. It’s almost all he talked about. I have to admit, the ones we saw were pretty impressive.
We were there because Walton officials had demanded the state let them build a new 420-acre town amid all those trees, cleverly named New Town. Fortunately, that plan fell apart.
But over the years, the state did sell Walton bits around the edge, according to Kent Wimmer of the Defenders of Wildlife. The county took 187 acres total, using it for a Tourist Development Council office, a Walton County sheriff substation, a fire station, a landfill, and a sewer easement.
Meanwhile, though, the state and feds were busy enhancing the forest and its nearby parks. For instance, an $8 million grant from the Fish and Wildlife Foundation is paying for restoring 310 acres of wetlands feeding the coastal dune lakes, an effort led by Jeff Talbert of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
“Point Washington is all part of the same ecosystem,” he told me this week.
A road built through there, he said, would disturb not just the forest and its many occupants, but all the state parks connected to it, effectively (ahem) reversing all the hard work that has been put into reviving the wetlands.
‘Pretty much nothing’
In 2015, the Walton County Commission approved a $600,000 contract with a company to do a planning, design, and engineering study on the “South Walton Connector.”
The contract keeps expiring, and the Commissioners keep renewing it as if this time it’s going to produce something popular. Excuse me, I have to run to my bookshelf and look up that famous quote about the definition of insanity.
Two weeks ago, Cobena told me, the county’s transportation committee brought up the road again. This time, one commissioner suggested the county ask the governor and Cabinet for permission to run that road through the state’s property and see what they say.
I rolled my eyes when I heard that. Gov. Ron “I’ve Got More Flights Leaving Texas Than the Dallas Airport” DeSantis hasn’t yet met a road he and his developer pals didn’t like. Remember, he signed off on the Northern Turnpike Extension — twice!
The attorney general and chief financial officer will dance to whatever tune DeSantis plays. That just leaves Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose office oversees the state forests. I contacted her about all these efforts to ram new roads through those state forests.
“Our natural lands must be protected — not paved over — to preserve our environment, critical ecosystems, and our economy,” she replied. “To target these lands for development is dangerous, moving our conservation efforts in the wrong direction.”
Hey, there’s that wrong direction thing again!
I tried calling a couple Commissioners and instead wound up talking to the county traffic engineer, a perfectly pleasant gent named Chance Powell.
He told me he, personally and professionally, supports building the road. He dismissed the opposition from state and federal agencies as routine negotiation tactics (trust me, though, it’s not every day the Department of Environmental Protection actually protects the environment).
He told me that any destroyed wetlands could be easily replaced through building new ones. I didn’t take the time to point out to him how many times such “mitigation” wetlands fail, over and over again.
When I pointed out that a road going north-south won’t help the traffic on one going east-west, he contended it would, by providing drivers with “alternatives” to 30A.
Then I asked if the county had considered widening two-lane 30A to four lanes, which is something suggested by the feds and state. He told me that’s never even come up because it would cost too much to buy the now-developed right of way. God forbid making the developers pay for the improvement.
Then he told me that the Commissioners might never have thought of building that forest road “except for the power line easement that’s cut through it.”
I asked him if he’d ever gone out to the forest to look at the power line. He said yes. I asked him what it looked like.
“It looked like any other power line easement that’s been cut out through the woods,” he said.
I asked him what else could be seen around that power line stretching through the glories of the Point Washington forest. He replied, “Pretty much nothing,”
That’s the point where I decided he was looking at the forest the wrong way.
Craig Pittman reporting via Florida Phoenix.
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