EUSTIS — Trout Lake Nature Center brought together area conservationists Saturday for a conservation symposium to explore ways to create a better future for Lake County’s green spaces and waterways.
The event brought together representatives from 15 groups who are independently tackling various local environmental issues to discuss current challenges and find ways to work together. Supporters of state parks, the Audubon Society and nature councils have been joined by groups lesser known for their conservation efforts, such as the Tri-City branch of the NAACP and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
These disparate groups have found many areas of common interest, and that environmental causes in particular can connect everyone in often surprising ways.
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Beverly Ward, the event’s keynote speaker, touched on this kind of unexpected interconnection. Ward is an anthropologist and former professor at the University of South Florida whose research has focused on urban transportation and disadvantaged communities, but she approached the event as a representative of Earthcare, a Quaker ministry.
Ward discussed environmental justice, which includes designing and enforcing rules while respecting and including disadvantaged communities – who often bear a disproportionate burden. Ward showed that Lake County grew twice as fast as the rest of Florida between 2010 and 2020, and that managing that growth – including roads, housing, pollution mitigation and spaces greens – can be improved.
“We don’t always make good decisions about how we build, what we use to build, and where we build,” Ward said. “Are the people who live in the communities engaged in the process? Do they propose the solutions with which they will have to live? communities and saying, ‘What are the issues and how would you like them addressed?’ »
The symposium also brought together three area experts to discuss water and open space issues in Lake County: Ron Hart, former executive director of the Lake County Water Authority, Rick Ault of Keep Clermont Rural, and Mark Hostetler , professor at the University of Florida.
Hart began with a lecture on improving water quality in the Harris Chain of Lakes and the effects of runoff and climate change on waters in the region. He said increased heat and heavier drawdowns from the aquifer are resulting in shallower – and therefore less healthy – lakes and streams.
He also addressed House Bill 1105, the controversial move to change the Lake County Water Authority from an independent body of elected members to a group reporting to the county commission, which would also appoint council members. That bill, proposed by State Rep. Keith Truenow, passed the legislature and now awaits consideration by Governor Ron DeSantis.
Hart was deeply concerned about the changes and suggested that the new regime could allow abuses of power if the agency lost its independence.
“There were some very negative laws that were brought in to change, impact the agency,” Hart said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily good for Lake County or good for conservation”
Rick Ault took issue with the way growth has been handled, particularly in South Lake. He said there was no formal consensus on the meaning of “open space” or “green space” and that developers easily find loopholes in defining backyards or common areas of subdivision. so as to allow even more houses.
Ault also pointed out the absurdity of new cycle lanes on roads without bike racks in parking areas.
“Where I live, Walmart in Clermont is surrounded by a road network that’s brand new, so there’s all of the bike lanes on it. They have three or four large apartment complexes within a quarter mile “There are no bike racks in this store. Give people a way to not have to get in their car,” Ault said.
Hart and Ault both pointed out that no politician is going to say they are against conservation, but it’s up to people to follow the vote results and see who is actually standing up for the environment.
Mark Hofstetler addressed a similar issue, known as greenwashing, when builders and planners present their projects as environmentally friendly but do little to ensure those claims are well-founded.
He pointed out that good planning is important, but without proper construction and management, there can be no smart growth. For example, he said, there are incentives in place to create “no-mow” retention ponds, which are allowed to act as small wilderness areas with native vegetation. But if homeowner associations are not properly informed and monitored, they will mow down the plants and destroy the environmental benefits.
“If you involve the public, building professionals and policy makers, that’s where it works,” he said.
This was key for many – getting people more involved can lead to better environmental outcomes. Susan Fetter of the Lake County Conservation Council said environmental organizations need to attract and educate people.
“Find something happening that touches you,” she said. “It’s hard to know all the underlying things that make things the way they are, and the more you start to learn, the more you’ll find something to get excited about.”