In the past, attempts to protect endangered and threatened wildlife through land use regulations in Florida frequently involved the "on-site" preservation of habitat within the boundaries of a development. After careful study, biologists determined that this method often created small, isolated preserves that were easily disturbed by surrounding development. Additional shortcomings included:
- Poor protection for species with large home ranges (i.e., pine snake, indigo snake, southeastern kestrel, red-cockaded woodpecker);
- The isolation of on-site populations from other populations which could reduce reproduction and lead to local extinction;
- An inability to conduct land management practices such as controlled burning because of the risk to nearby residences, highways and commercial facilities;
- Insufficient control over on-site preserves which could result in vandalism, dumping, arson and construction harmful to wildlife; and disturbance from increased levels of motor vehicle traffic and domesticated pets.
In 1998 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) created the Mitigation Park Program as an off-site alternative to on-site protection. When developers eliminated habitat for an endangered or threatened species, they paid fees that were used to buy and manage high quality habitat elsewhere. The program consolidated mitigation within a geographical region by buying larger, more manageable tracts, which ranged in size from 368 acres to 2,148 acres. These tracts, established as Wildlife and Environmental Areas, were opened to the public initially for low-intensity forms of recreation such as wildlife viewing, hiking and nature study. Now, four WEAs - Fort White, Suwannee Ridge, Lafayette Forest and Watermelon Pond - also offer hunting opportunities. Many tracts were developed in cooperation with other local, state and federal agencies, but responsibility for the management rested with FWC. All areas were managed primarily to protect and enhance habitats important to upland endangered or threatened wildlife, especially the gopher tortoise.
The program provided a cost-effective way to preserve wildlife habitat while allowing developers to retain use of a project site. It protected the most biologically important sites in a region and maximized resource protection by consolidating small and isolated tracts into larger units. Additionally, the program provided public access to lands managed by the state for the long-term protection of wildlife resources.
Before the Mitigation Park Program was discontinued, it established 14 mitigation tracts, totaling 15,320 acres in Duval, Clay, Hamilton, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Alachua, Hernando, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee, Highlands and Lee counties. FWC will continue to actively manage these properties to provide high quality habitat for endangered and threatened species and outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreationists.