‘We’ve been waiting five years’
Five years after Gulf County Commissioners passed a resolution calling for an altered roadside mowing schedule to help conserve local wildflowers, the new schedule had yet to be adopted.
At the board’s Tuesday meeting, Liz Sparks, a liaison between the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Wildflower Foundation, and Nancy Jones, a member of the Port St. Joe Garden Club, stepped up to the podium to ask why.
“Hurricane Michael kind of blew everything out of the water, and then we had a fun little two years of a Covid pandemic, so it just seems like everything just sort of got shuffled, and, you know, it didn’t get followed through,” Sparks said.
“I think we all could use some good news. It’s a simple ask, so we’re hoping that you’ll support the continuation of the program.”
The Wildflower Program, which has been implemented in several other Panhandle counties, aims to create connections between natural refuges, using roadsides as biological corridors that are designated to increase habitat for pollinator species.
This is accomplished through an altered, but not less frequent, mowing schedule, in which roadsides are cleared after wildflower growing seasons and not during.
All parties agree that not all county roads will be eligible for the program. Eligible roads have a wide enough roadside that the rshoulder can still be trimmed to the ditch with enough room leftover to leave a wildlife corridor.
In 2017, after Gulf County first signed on for the program, 42 miles of roadsides were selected as viable options – US 98 from Port St Joe city limits to the Franklin County line, SR 71 from the Port St Joe city limits to White City Bridge and SR 22 from SR 71 to the Bay County line.
But there have been significant changes in Gulf County since 2017. Several commissioners expressed that they were reluctant to move forward with those roads without determining the impact that Hurricane Michael and population growth had had on them.
“My only concern is we’re post hurricane still have a lot of blown down timber in the forest,” said commissioner for District 5 Phillip McCroan. “I want to make sure that we adequately cut where a car pulls off the road. You take a car that’s been out all day and running, you pull it off to the side of the road – it could set a fire.”
Sparks had a recommendation for a compromise – a pilot program, where just one roadside would be set aside while the county worked out the initial resolution’s kinks.
County Administrator Michael Hammond, spoke up to voice his support for this option.
“I think a good start would be the non-populated stretch on 98 to Franklin County,” he said. “That would be something we could work hard on. I think it’d be a great start there.”
Jones asked the commission if they would be willing to make a motion on Hammond’s recommendation.
“We’ve been waiting five years to get this program started. We’ve already had to be here at the commission to report. I think this is our third visit here. We sent out a lot of paperwork,” she said. “I think you could put your good faith in the garden club to work this out with the commissioners if we could get your vote of confidence today.”
With the 2017 resolution already authorizing the county government to take action, they unanimously voted to begin a pilot project along the stretch of Highway 98 leading up to the Franklin County Line. Commissioners also instructed the county to send a letter of their support for this project and their establishment to FDOT and to establish Commissioner for District 3 Patrick Farrell as a liaison for the wildflower program going forward.
Many members of the garden club were in attendance at the meeting – filling multiple rows of audience seating in the Gulf County Commission Chamber.
They erupted in applause after the commissioners’ unanimous vote to move forward.
“Today was a win-win for the Port St. Joe Garden Club and all of Gulf County as our commissioners voted to adopt reduced mowing for wildflowers and pollinators,” Jones told the Star. “The pilot project will extend along 98 east of town to the Franklin County line. Look for wildflower signs to come.”