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Citizen Participation: Wakulla

Learn how a couple of dozen acres of land became a legal and ideological battleground for springs protection.

Manley Fuller

Fighting for the Springshed to Protect Wakulla’s Future

Image of Manley Fuller, far right, explores the Yellow River in the panhandle of Florida as part of his activities on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation.Manley Fuller, far right, explores the Yellow River in the panhandle of Florida as part of his activities on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation. © Florida Wildlife Foundation

By Peter Lane Taylor

Manley Fuller has a history of speaking out for rivers. First, in 1982, there was the battle over the extent of protections offered by the North Carolina Wilderness Act -- he succeeded in getting a tract of wetlands and rare coastal peat forest protected. Then there was the controversy over the proposed dam on the New River along the North Carolina-Virginia border -- the dam was never built. Then there was the dam on Alligator River . . . and many others

Image of Divers explore deep in the Wakulla Spring cave system, which extends many miles away from the main spring.Zoom+ Divers explore deep in the Wakulla Spring cave system, which extends many miles away from the main spring. © Wes Skiles

"I've been involved in land conservation and battles over wetlands and rivers for twenty years now," Fuller tells me over the phone, "But this time I wasn't actively looking for a local conservation issue. This problem I just couldn't avoid because it was right in front of my face."

In 1993, Fuller, who is president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, moved into a small ranch house two miles south of Wakulla Springs State Park. Like others, he was drawn to Wakulla County because it's still quiet and rural and home to one of the most beautiful spring-fed rivers in the state. Wakulla Springs, however, also lies just eight miles from the sprawling interface of Tallahassee, and most residents knew it was only a matter of time before the developers began knocking at their doors.

According to cave explorers and scientists, the 26-acre tract lay directly over one of the main passageways leading to the head spring at Wakulla.

It came in late 1993. At the core of the controversy that would eventually become Florida Wildlife Federation vs. Wakulla County Commission was a 26-acre agricultural property just across the road from the southern edge of the State Park. Compared to the thousands of acres of similarly adjacent land owned by timber companies, the property doesn't seem like much. But as the case itself revealed, matters of symbolism are sometimes more important to long-term springs protection than issues of impact and scale.

Image of Wakulla Spring and the historic Wakulla Lodge.Zoom+ Wakulla Spring and the historic Wakulla Lodge. © Russell Sparkman

"The basic dispute," Fuller explains in a fast Carolina drawl, "related to a development proposal for a 26-acre property adjacent to the State Park in what was unquestionably karst topography . . . but there were a lot of other issues involved here."

According to the initial action filed by the FWF under the Florida Growth Management Act, the first of these was the issue of direct impact. Fuller emphasizes the phrase "unquestionably karst" for a reason that was fundamental to the case. According to cave explorers and scientists from the Woodville Karst Plain Project, the defendant's 26-acre tract lay directly over one of the main passageways leading to the headspring at Wakulla. From a protection standpoint, Fuller's concern could not have been more straightforward: critical adjacent karst lands with known underground connections to the Wakulla headspring should not be developed. From a long-term perspective, the FWF's goal went even further to propose the direct acquisition of the property by the State to conserve it as a permanent buffer zone for the spring.

Yet, for the hundreds of Wakulla County residents who rallied behind the FWF's case, there was also something greater at stake here. In addition to focusing on the obvious threats of pollution, Fuller also couched the zoning change as a fundamental growth management issue-as the first crack in the dam permitting the large-scale development of Wakulla County.

Image of Wild and healthy spring ecosystems like No Name Spring along Wakulla River are vivid reminders of what many of Florida's springs used to look like.Zoom+ Wild and healthy spring ecosystems like No Name Spring along Wakulla River are vivid reminders of what many of Florida's springs used to look like. © Russell Sparkman

It was an ideological battle that would eventually consume four years, two judges, and countless actions and appeals on both sides. In the end, the FWF prevailed, thanks in no small part to Fuller and FWF lawyer David Theriaque.

As it turned out, Florida Wildlife Federation vs. Wakulla County Commission was in fact every bit the precedent case Fuller imagined. Since the state's acquisition of the 26-acre property in 1999, two additional acquisitions of over 3,000 acres around Wakulla Springs and nearby Cherokee Sink have followed. Another 3,000-acre purchase is planned for the coming year. In the long-term, Fuller envisions an undisturbed buffer of forests, wetlands, and karst lands surrounding Wakulla for miles to ensure the protection of the springshed.

Chalk up another one for springs and rivers.

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