Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Southeastern Turtles as Political Football

Tonight it's a safe bet Sean Hannity will utter the phrase, "Turtle Tunnel." My good friend Matt Aresco, who worked hard last year to protect endangered Alabama Red-bellied turtles on the Mobile Causeway, has suddenly found himself in the latest news cycle as a result of today's report by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla) questioning 100 projects being funded by the stimulus package. Matt's "turtle tunnel" in Florida is featured way up at #5!

For a decade, Matt and other volunteers have maintained a temporary fence along Lake Jackson that keeps thousands of turtles and other wildlife from crossing US Highway 27 near Tallahassee, directing them to large culverts that already exist beneath the road, but a permanent solution has been greatly needed, not only for the turtles but for public safety.
Last November, through Matt's tireless efforts, the local regional transportation planning agency unanimously voted to prioritize the proposed Lake Jackson Ecopassage, making it eligible for Transportation Enhancement funds. Later, funds from the stimulus package were directed toward the project.

This looked like a win-win, for turtles, conservationists, motorists, and people needing work. But because it's been re-branded by its detractors as just a "13-foot turtle tunnel," it's a perfect target for politicians who care more about votes than facts. It's all over the news today.
My Google search of "Aresco" and "Coburn" just turned up 162 news items, mostly neutral or unfavorable. But Frank Cerabino of the Palm Beach Post gets it right:

"Why did the turtle cross the road?" read the pithy report Coburn issued today. "To get to the other side of the stimulus money."

The Lake Jackson wildlife "ecopassage" got the notoriety being Item No. 5 in Coburn's list of 100 foolish uses for stimulus money.

But it's too bad nobody from his office bothered to talk to Matthew Aresco first.

"It's an easy target," Aresco said. "But when you understand the project and what's at stake, you would support it."

So true. The column goes on describe the real problems of large turtles on a heavily traveled roadway, and then says:

There's a simple and relatively cheap solution: a low wall on the side of the road that funnels the lake creatures to three culverts under the roadway for safe crossing.

Aresco's crusade for this has resulted in a not-for-profit group with a Web site (www.lakejacksonturtles.org), a grant of land from a donor and widespread support from the local community and the state Department of Transportation, which has endorsed the $3.4 million project.

Yet, Coburn's report has painted the project as a fly-by-night government boondoggle, claiming that a temporary fabric fence Aresco put there adequately "saves a lot of our four-legged friends."

Aresco doesn't think so.

"They don't understand the project," he said. "They just put it down without knowing anything about it."

Hang in there, Matt.


MB said...

Well, Hannity went there, as predicted. I don't have a transcript (yet), but basically he called it ridiculous, or (his favorite) unbelievable. Here's Dave Steen's response to my Facebook posting: "It is a lot of money, but it's a large scale construction project. To do it right requires maintaining it as a functioning highway safe for high traffic volume (nearly 24,000 cars a day) while at the same time making it permeable to wildlife migrations. Basically starting from scratch. I think the moral of this story is that we should take into account the needs of wildlife and local ecosystems from the start, so that expensive mitigation efforts aren't needed later.

The plans for this construction project were the result of a long process (10 years) and in consultation with the Florida Department of Transportation, numerous conservation organizations, and concerned citizens. Local government was in support of the project and was working to secure funding. The stimulus money offered an opportunity to help make it happen."

Mark in LA said...

This sounds like a great use of funds to me. I stop to carry snakes and turtles across the road at least twice a week on average, but so many T & E species still get massacred.
Keep up the good work Matt & Mark.
Our threatened herpetofauna have few high profile advocates. They need all the help they can get.