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Friday, June 19, 2009

Florida Turtle Tunnel Protects Motorists Too

Here in Washington, there’s a small group of out-of-touch lawmakers who make a habit of trivializing and mocking animal issues, such as when Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) made light of legislation to halt the trade in primates as pets—even though a woman in Connecticut had just been horribly disfigured by a pet chimpanzee. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is now holding up that bill in the Senate, and he’s targeted yet another project included in the federal stimulus package: a $3.4 million tunnel for turtles.

Yellow-bellied slider But when you look under the shell, the Florida highway project dubbed the Lake Jackson Ecopassage, which will help turtles and other animals cross a busy and deadly stretch of U.S. Highway 27 in Tallahassee, is not a fleecing of taxpayers. It’s a wise solution to a pressing problem that makes the highway unsafe for drivers and a slaughter ground for wildlife. The community-based project is supported by local citizens, public officials, and the state Department of Transportation. It has been 10 years in the making and now, thanks to federal stimulus money, has the potential to not only help animals, but also save human lives.

Here’s how the story really began: Ten years ago, a Florida State University graduate student named Matt Aresco noticed a proliferation of dead turtles—some weighing 20 pounds—littering the side of Highway 27.

When he got out of the car to take a look, he picked up 90 dead turtles in a third of a mile stretch of highway. Through painstaking research, he documented the highest rate of turtle mortality on any road in North America—more than 2,000 turtles per mile per year. Ninety-eight percent of the turtles who try to cross, Aresco found, get killed.

Highway 27 was constructed before there were rules about protecting wetlands, and it sliced Lake Jackson, a state aquatic preserve, into two. The turtles—and alligators—follow the same route they’ve traveled for thousands of years, but now it’s a death sentence. Sixty-two species of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals have been found attempting to cross Highway 27.

“I got sort of callous finding the dead turtles,” Aresco told the St. Petersburg Times. “But it's the live ones you see die right in front of you that get to you. In seconds, they are in pieces. Some of these turtles are 30 years old.”

Aresco was the first person who ever tried to do anything about the problem. He started a citizens’ group to advocate for the Lake Jackson Ecopassage. Joined by scores of local schoolchildren, the citizens brought the problem to the local county commission, which agreed immediately to do something to ensure traffic safety and wildlife protection. The county commission brought it to the regional transportation planning agency, which brought it to the Florida Department of Transportation, and after a decade of discussing, voting, planning, and designing, the project is ready to go. In federal stimulus-speak, it is “shovel ready.” A private donor purchased the additional right-of-way needed for the project for $370,000 and donated the land to the state—a perfect example of a public-private partnership that benefits the entire community.

Who would second-guess a community’s very deliberative and measured solution to a problem that has gone on far too long? And who would want to hit a 400-pound alligator, or a turtle the size of a cinder block, at night while speeding down the highway?

Alligator killed on Florida highwayIn a state like Florida where development is rampant, people and wildlife are being pushed closer together. In Florida alone, there were 46 human fatalities when motor vehicles crashed into wildlife between 1994 and 2003. In one case, in 2005, a 6-year-old girl was killed by a car when she darted onto a Florida highway to help a crossing turtle.

The ecopassage can’t come too soon for people or animals. It will be a series of carefully engineered tunnels to connect the lake underneath the roadway, and a one-mile barrier wall to funnel wildlife safely underneath. Wildlife will be able to safely cross, reducing the danger to themselves and to motorists.

Similar projects already have a proven track record of reducing wildlife mortality, and helping to preserve imperiled species like the Florida panther and black bear. In Gainesville, an ecopassage under a highway that bisects the 18,000-acre Paynes Prairie wetland has been a huge success. Road kill there “has dropped to a dribble,” according to wildlife biologist David O’Neill.

What we have here isn’t a government boondoggle, and shouldn’t be subject to Washington demagoguery. It’s a community-based project that balances wildlife protection with modern life. And the return on our investment will be the lives saved—both human and animal.

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