When the Florida U.S. Forest Service’s recommendation for Alternate C went to Washington D.C., I wrote the following letter to the National Trail Program Manager of the U.S. Forest Service. It will answer questions that many people have raised regarding the concerns of the Big Bend reroute:
Ms. Jamie Schmidt
National Trail Program Manager September 24, 2018
U.S. Forest Service
3815 Schreiber Way
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83815
Dear Ms. Schmidt,
I was given your name by Shawn Thomas in your Tallahassee office. I understand that he and other staff members have submitted a proposal to you regarding the relocation of over 47 miles of the Florida Trail in the Florida Panhandle west of the Suwannee River. This is the stretch formerly owned by Foley Timber Company. I am somewhat familiar with the background of this property over the past five years. I am also familiar with alternative routes A, B and C and that the U.S. Forest Service favors Alternative C. Several things bother me about the process, Alternative C and, in fact, the philosophical approach to the problem we face.
As the Founder of the Florida Trail, I have been concerned over its routing for over 50 years. I understand the challenges.
Dale Allen was given a very difficult task when asked to provide an alternate route after Foley Timber asked us to relocate the trail. There is little or no support for Alternates A and B. I won’t even discuss them in this letter. But I do want to point out numerous, very serious problems with Alternate C.
1. Perhaps the number one task in route finding is to get the trail off roads and into the woods. Alternate C adds over 80 miles of trail but does almost nothing to reduce the miles of road walks. Simply on the face of it, this should eliminate Alternate C.
2. Those portions of Alternate C that are off roads are, for the most part, on very marginal land. By marginal, I mean low, easily subject to flooding and salt water intrusion. This is extremely important in today’s world with sea levels rising. Backpackers are already dealing with the salt water intrusion issue in St. Marks NWR. Access to fresh water will become increasingly difficult over time. This fact alone should also eliminate Alternate C from consideration.
3. Florida has more than its share of noxious insects, particularly mosquitos. But low, damp Florida land provides the best possible breeding habitat for chiggers, ticks, deer flies and mosquitos. In the winter, when our state dries out, much of this route will remain damp hydric land; and, unlike pine habitat, it blocks breezes as well, making things worse. (When dry, this kind of habitat does provide some of the most scenic hiking trail imaginable.)
4. I have heard staff mention a plan to enable hikers, once they reach the Gulf, to have the option of proceeding west by canoe or other vessel. I would like to squelch this idea. Most hikers are on the trail because that’s where they want to be. And by the way, here is an interesting statistic: 37 million Americans consider themselves hikers when the criteria for such activity is 18 or more outings a year. Floridians need this trail.
5. While we’re on the subject of the attitude of most hikers, I should point out that the overwhelming number hike from south to north. When they round the bend in our state and cross the Suwannee River and look at their compass, they can see that the northern terminus is due west and that’s where they want to go. Hikers are not going to be interested in adding those 80 extra miles to their hike by heading south-southwest. Believe me, they just won’t take that trail; they will do a road walk and hate every mile of it.
6. Alternative C misses the Aucilla Sinks. I understand the intention is to supply a side trail to them. But by the time hikers get there, again, they’re a horse headed for the barn. Our original route included this lovely, geographically unique segment of the FNST Florida landscape.
7. The Foley property changed hands and is now owned by Four Rivers Timber Company. Timing to secure a better deal for the trail will improve with Four Rivers toward the end of their 20-year investment cycle when they have to provide revenue to the investors of their TIMO (Timber Investment Management Organization.)
8. The U.S. Forest Service has worked with Nokuse Plantation to restore longleaf pine habitat in Walton County, evidence that something similar is possible at Four Rivers.
9. Alternate C is a significant and substantial relocation that falls outside the 20 mile corridor prescribed by Congress. As such, it will require an Act of Congress, something we will oppose. I get the sense from U.S. Forest personnel that they have a mandate from Congress: Get the job done. And there are folks in Washington who want to see progress. Most hikers that love the Florida Trail have a slightly different perspective. Let’s find the best route through Florida and build the trail there…and make it permanent for all time. Alternate C is just simply not a permanent choice. Your own FS OLR guidelines specifically recognize that “Acquisition of the easement or land surrounding the Trail and completion of relocations may at times require a long or uncertain wait. This should not deter land managers from pursuing the location deemed most desirable.” The “Foley” route, or close to it, is that choice.
10. Portions of the Foley section are already under public ownership or are targeted for acquisition under the San Pedro Bay and Hixtown Swamp projects (see: https://floridadep.gov/lands/lands/documents/florida-forever-priority-list)
Additionally, the trail could coexist with the proposed connector with the segment of the Ecological Greenways Network connecting the Suwannee River and the Aucilla River (see: http://conservation.dcp.ufl.edu/FEGN.html and https://floridadep.gov/parks/ogt/content/florida-greenways-and-trails-system-publication
I believe that there will be an opportunity to secure the route of the trail working with Four Rivers TIMO over the next 15 years through the $10 billion Florida Forever Program. We should be playing the long-game rather than pursuing opportunities that will require expenditure of valuable resources in an area without good long-term prospects for success.
The options in hand are so poor that I think we must keep looking. I recommend that we consider an “Alternate D”: Temporarily terminate the Florida Trail at the Four Rivers Timber Company property line and continue a road walk in the near vicinity. Continue the Florida Trail at the west end of their vast holdings. Let everyone in the State know that this is where the trail needs to go. Keep the pressure on. Eventually we will succeed in getting the right trail for all time. As an experienced FT hiker said recently, referring to Four Rivers, “This is where the trail should go.”
St. Augustine, FL
Founder, Florida Trail Association, 1966
Co-Founder, American Hiking Society, 1976
Director, HikaNation, 1980-81
Founder, Publisher, American Hiker Magazine, 1988
Founder, Big City Mountaineers, 1990
President, Hiker’s Grand Slam, 1998-2005
President, Kern Trekking & Travel, 1999-2005
Author, Trail Reflections, 50 Years of Hiking and Backpacking, 2011
Founder, Hiking Trails for America, 2013
Founder, Friends of the Florida Trail, 2014