Heroes for the Half-Shell: Cecil Airport

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A close-up view of an adult gopher tortoise.

On a global scale, airports play a vital role in the transportation of passengers and cargo. As the demand for air travel increases, airports and aircraft operations have the potential to negatively impact the environment. While Federal and State agencies mandate a number of environmental regulations that airports are subject to, many airports go above and beyond to implement green initiatives to protect sensitive natural resources. Cecil Airport is no exception. Exhibit A is our established Long-term Protected Gopher Tortoise Recipient Site.

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A gopher tortoise on the airfield at Cecil next to airfield lighting equipment.

The gopher tortoise is a medium-sized tortoise that lives only on land, not in the water. The tortoise thrives in Florida’s pine flat-woods, sand hills, and coastal dunes where it constructs its signature burrow home. Burrows are easily recognized by its half-moon shape and an apron of loose sand that fans out from the entrance of the burrow. What makes the gopher tortoise so critical to Florida’s ecosystem is that almost 400 other animal species utilize the gopher tortoise burrow for shelter. Diamondback rattlesnakes, foxes, rabbits, and other critters call the gopher tortoise burrow home.  As the human population in Florida increases, so does the development of neighborhoods and commercial real estate. The largest threat to the gopher tortoise is loss of habitat. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) lists the gopher tortoise as a threatened species.

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Five new residents inside Cecil’s gopher tortoise recipient site.

In the Fall of 2012, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) began evaluating the viability of permitting a long-term protected gopher tortoise recipient site through FWC. JAA staff worked very closely with wildlife biologists from Environmental Resource Solutions Inc. (ERS), Florida Forestry Service (FFS), and FWC to discuss the potential of protecting this threatened species at Cecil. Approximately 230 acres within Cecil’s conservation corridor were deemed suitable gopher tortoise habitat. JAA, ERS, and FFS began writing a habitat management plan that was approved by the FWC and the FAA. The FAA approved the conservation easement after determining the tortoises posed no strike risk to aircraft operations due to the site being located outside of the Air Operations Area.

An adult and juvenile gopher tortoise.
An adult and juvenile gopher tortoise.

This was the first conservation easement approved by the FAA in the state of Florida to make exceptions for aviation safety and still allowing conservation efforts. The effort by all parties resulted in the JAA winning the J. Bryan Cooper Award from the Florida Airports Council in 2013 which recognizes top environmental projects with a positive effect on Florida’s airport system.

Under Florida state law, before any land development, all gopher tortoises must be moved from the proposed development to a recipient site. In 2016, biologists from ERS began moving the tortoises from development sites (aka donor sites) throughout northeast Florida into their new home at Cecil Airport. The 230 acre recipient site at Cecil provides suitable habitat for up to 606 tortoises. The JAA and ERS conduct weekly and monthly surveys of the temporary enclosures within the recipient site to assess the quality of the tortoise habitat and ensure the relocated tortoises cannot escape to an area that would be unsuitable for their survival. The gopher tortoise recipient site at Cecil is one example of the JAA’s dedication to protecting natural resources while promoting aviation development in northeast Florida.

 

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