We have all come to know and love gopher tortoises, and perhaps in the past year we behaved more like them than ever before. We trudged along cautiously during the COVID-19 pandemic, we dug ourselves in, we came out to nibble and we only stuck our necks out when it was absolutely necessary.
We had adopted our socially distanced, solitary habits and we all got tired of being isolated from our friends and family. That is why it was especially satisfying and fun to re-engage in the relative safety of open air at Split Oak Forest in Orange and Osceola County, Florida, for Gopher Tortoise Day 2021.
We reassembled the Friends of Split Oak Forest and partners to plan and present a charming program with Sheldon, the rehabilitated gopher tortoise of Swamp Girl Adventures presiding as Mayor over the festivities. Assisted by his handlers Kim and Vala Titterington, Sheldon completed his duties by signing the official proclamation with his right foreleg phalanges imprint. Maribel Gomez-Cordero, Orange County Commissioner for District 4, graciously bestowed honors and recognized Sheldon and the approximately 290 gopher tortoises of Split Oak Forest on their special day. Sheldon seemed to enjoy the attention and was treated to snacks of native plants handpicked for him by Tayler Figueroa and Jennifer Adams of the Pine Lily Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.
Volunteers extraordinaire, Mary Nesler and Junior McGovern, our dedicated "Wednesday Wanderers" had scouted in advance to guide hikers to view a few gopher tortoise burrows and learn about their habitat. As if on cue, a resident gopher tortoise came out for a stroll providing a great opportunity to observe wild foraging behavior and allow for photos and video.
We fulfilled our objective of educating visitors with facts about gopher tortoises and the history of how Split Oak Forest has become a model refuge for imperiled species, specifically our torts. Attendees of all ages were game to learn about FWC's careful management and prescribed burning program by chatting directly with David Turner and Bryan Ames, the managers with boots on the ground keeping Split Oak Forest in exceptionally good shape for Gopher Tortoises and the commensals. Our guests took home educational materials provided by FWC, swag like stickers, a trail map/brochure, and our signature "Save Split Oak Forest" buttons with the gopher tortoise branding.
Other event partners Osceola Mom, Bear Warriors United, and the Tarflower Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society promoted the event on social media and continue to spread the word about respect and appreciation for open space, wildlife habitat, and protection of native flora and fauna.
The League of Women Voters of Orange County once again supported the Friends of Split Oak Forest for this outreach and education effort. Kay Hudson, Chair of the local Natural Resources Committee and her cohorts have been steadfast advocates on their mission to protect conservation lands forever, as provided by Article X, Section 18 of the Florida Constitution. It was fun to celebrate our shared victory with colleagues and reminisce about the work that was done to inspire Orange County residents to overwhelmingly vote to strengthen protections on Split Oak Forest, affirming a Charter Amendment by a countywide margin of 86.4% (yes) to 13.6% (no). Clearly, the people of Orange County, Florida do care about the environment.
Being tough and steady has been the best strategy for advocates that have been opposing the Osceola Parkway Extension Toll Roadway proposed through Split Oak Forest for the past 5 years or so. With any luck, all 503,801 of the Orange County residents that voted in favor of safeguarding Split Oak Forest will continue to take an interest and will speak up for our special gopher tortoise population. It is a joy to witness people learning more about these remarkable creatures. I hope that we can continue to add to that wonder and amazement each and every year.