Crossing the Cross Florida Greenway
A critical corridor for wildlife in a ever-more-heavily developed region, the Cross Florida Greenway is at risk of being crossed by high-tension power lines that would clear-cut a swath through wildlife-rich habitats.
File photo: Ashley Lee, who was riding Harlen, a thoroughbred, right, leads a group of equestrian riders on a Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides trail ride on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway at the Land Bridge Trailhead south of Ocala, Fla. on Monday, February 17, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman] 2020.
Just two years ago, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act became a law. It defines areas of critical connectivity for wildlife to move freely across the state. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) describes it as a “network of public and private lands for safe passage and dispersal routes to maintain healthy populations of plants and animals.”
More than a decade’s worth of hard work by scientists, researchers, and environmental champions went into the definition of the “where” as untouched natural lands became more fragmented by burgeoning growth. For nearly fifty years, I’ve watched forests, farms, ranches, and orange groves replaced by subdivisions across this state.
The continual increase in Florida’s population affects not just our wildlife, but our infrastructure. More people means more need for roads, water, sewer, and electric.
Ocala Electric needs more power. Duke Energy needs to feed it to them by building a new corridor of high-tension power lines north from their Ross Prairie substation, which adjoins the far southeast corner of Ross Prairie State Forest.
What’s in between the two? The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, now part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
I was made aware of this issue very recently through a Facebook group that was “recommended for me.” According to its founder, Greenway volunteer Clif Edwards, “The Greenway Guardians, a grassroots group, believes future electrical needs can be met responsibly without exploiting a resource that cannot be replaced.”
As required by law, Duke Energy reached out to residents and businesses along their study corridors for the potential placement of transmission lines. As you can see in the map below, all parallel existing roads, but all routes cross the Cross Florida Greenway. There’s no getting around it.
Named for Marjorie Harris Carr, who was instrumental in persuading the Federal government to drop their century-old plans for a barge canal across Florida, the lands that became the Cross Florida Greenway were turned over to the state of Florida. It was designated Florida’s first linear corridor for wildlife and recreation in 1998.
Construction of the Land Bridge over Interstate 75 followed. The first true land bridge in the United States, it was modeled after a design used in the Netherlands. At its core, it’s a giant planter. Stretching 2,000 feet across the interstate, 87-ton beams support soil, rock, trees, native plants, and a watering system. I was part of the team building the Florida Trail, so I watched the bridge take form.
When we formally connected the trail across the newly opened Land Bridge, it hadn’t occurred to me it would be a corridor for wildlife, too. But game cameras soon captured the movement of mammals large and small across the interstate, a previously impossible feat.
Restoration of natural habitats west of the Land Bridge commenced. Over the past two decades, it’s been a delight to see the shift to healthy longleaf pine savanna and sand pine scrub.Wildlife spotted here includes fox squirrels, indigo snakes, and Florida scrub-jays. According to DEP Environmental Specialist Laurie Dolan, Greenway restoration efforts have helped the Florida scrub-jay population grow from eight individuals in 2008 to 161 counted in 2023.
There is also a sizable population of gopher tortoises, and plenty of forage for them. Deborah Curry, President of the Marion Big Scrub Chapter of FNPS, counts three threatened and endangered species of plants in this location: Robin’s Mint, Britton’s Beargrass, and Threebirds Orchid. Any routing of transmission lines across this restored swath of healthy sandhills and sand pine scrub will affect these species.
According to the details Clif Edwards shared with me, a 100-foot wide easement would be clear-cut across the Greenway for the installation of a 230-kilovolt transmission line. The line would be strung on towers standing 90 to 100 feet high and the land beneath them treated with herbicides in perpetuity. I would imagine, too, there would be an access road built for utility workers to both erect and later maintain the line.
Multiple potential routes are under consideration by Duke Energy, but the most direct (and cheapest to build) transmission line route would cut right through these restored habitats.
Frankly, I don’t find that option acceptable, and neither do the Greenway Guardians, whose members first learned about this project at an Informational Open House in late September. They’ve collected over 1,300 signatures in opposition to the routes that would run the line for several miles within the Greenway between SR 484 and Interstate 75.
The route they prefer is the corridor along SR 200 east to SW 66th St. Clif Edwards says he understands that route is also the choice for DEP and the Florida Forest Service. As a former resident of that corner of Ocala, I assure you adding more power lines along SR 200 won’t impact the visual clutter already in place.
However, the lines will still have to cross Ross Prairie on the Greenway. Utility poles edge SR 200, but this will be a wider corridor, likely opposite from the trailheads.
Unfortunately, there is no way around high power lines crossing the Greenway unless Duke Energy chooses, as some utilities have across the country, to bury their lines when they impact public lands and wildlife corridors. This would disrupt the landscape only during the construction period and subsequent repairs.
Duke Energy is accepting public comments on their transmission line plans through November 30. It’s best to download a copy of the Comment Form and email it to RossPrairie@duke-energy.com
Learn more about this project from Duke Energy.
Learn more about the Greenway Guardians on Facebook.
To comment further on this issue, you can email Randy Veltri, Director of Transmission Permitting at Duke Energy, at Randy.Veltri@duke-energy.com, 525 S. Tryon St. Charlotte, NC 28202, or call 1-704-577-5807.