Animal Conservation

Rancho Bonito neighbors say action needs to be taken to protect the environment

KATHLEEN – Linda Karppe says Rancho Bonito was once an apt name for the land adjacent to her property, as “Bonito” means “pretty” in Spanish.

“It was beautiful back then,” Karppe said wistfully.

The 1,132-acre undeveloped expanse was teeming with deer, and Karppe said she used to see endangered Florida jays. The land was undoubtedly home to rare animals still seen on an adjacent ranch, such as Sherman’s fox squirrels and gopher turtles.

“We just saw all kinds of nature,” Karppe said. “It’s not there anymore. There is no more room for it.

The environmental impact is clear

The environmental damage to Rancho Bonito, an unlicensed off-road vehicle fleet in northwest Polk County, is undeniable. The property attracts hundreds of vehicles on weekends, ranging from dirt bikes and four-wheelers to monster trucks.

Years of cumulative impact are apparent when looking at Rancho Bonito from neighboring properties. Recently, one afternoon, retired cattle rancher Clark Sherwood stood near the boundary between his 6,000-acre property and Rancho, pointing out the stark contrast between the land on either side of the fence.

“This is what it must look like,” Sherwood said, waving his arm to his left.

On the Sherwood side, the land is a typical Florida mix of pine and palm forests with wetlands in which cypress trees abound. On the other side of the fence, stands of cypress can be seen, but the surrounding land is bare and stripped of any low vegetation or ground cover.

Bare dirt can be found like carpet around a cypress dome and everywhere else that has been flattened to roll. A small pond nearby is devoid of any surrounding vegetation.

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ATV riders in a mud bog at Ranchio Bonito on Saturday March 13, 2021 north of Lakeland.

Videos taken in Rancho and posted publicly show cars, strollers and trucks churning through mud and ponds.

“There are cypress swamps there, and they tore them up to make a mud hole,” Karppe said. “Where are my schoolchildren? Where are my nature, animal lovers to protest? Where are they?”

Some area residents have purchased land in Rancho so that they can enter and observe activities that cannot be seen from the outside. They report that runners sometimes dump fuel into “mud holes” after getting stuck.

Karppe, Sherwood and other neighbors also say Rancho’s revelers regularly fire guns, scattering countless bullets across the leaflet over the years. Lead from bullets produces significant levels of contamination at shooting ranges, according to the environmental task force.

Ronnie Mims, a nearby resident who has access to Rancho, said decades of traffic carved out a main road 3½ to 4 feet below grade. Mims said the bare roots showed trees by the side of the road.

Fox Branch crosses the Clark Sherwood property in Northwest Polk County.  The stream, which is part of the Hillsborough River watershed, also runs through Rancho Bonito.  Sherwood said activities at the unlicensed all-terrain vehicle fleet severely damaged Fox Branch.

Damage to Fox Branch

Sherwood and other neighbors have expressed concern about the effects of activities at Rancho Bonito on Fox Branch, an 18-mile creek that flows northwest near Gibson Lake and feeds the springs of the Hillsborough River.

Crossing Sherwood Lands, Fox Branch is a narrow stream that winds through cypress domes, spilling out in large puddles in places.

“They come to Fox Branch with their machines and tear them up,” Sherwood said. “It’s like there is no branch. There is no stream. “

Karppe and other neighbors said cyclists not only damaged Fox Branch, but also crushed culverts inside Rancho Bonito. They say it changed the natural flow of water in the area.

“So now everyone is flooding around because… it’s flowing in the opposite direction than it used to be,” Lopes said. “There was a natural flow of water to the Hillsborough River. Now this is not the case. Now he backs up on everyone’s property.

Polk County and Forest Firefighters witnessed a brush fire in Rancho Bonito on Saturday.  The fire broke out near an illegal campsite next to Fox Branch Cattle Company, a former cattle ranch north of Lakeland, off Old Dade City Road, on March 13, 2021. ATV riders from Ranchio Neighboring Bonito have regularly fired guns and damaged neighboring properties.

Neighbors say the Southwest Florida Water Management District known as Swiftmud should tackle the altered water flow and potential pollution from multiple sources, including vehicles unloading fuel and users defecating and urinating at the site, which lacks bathrooms.

“If I had trucks here ripping up my wetlands, what little I have, Swiftmud and DEP would be on me like white on rice, giving me a ticket to destroying the wetlands,” Bennie said. Myers, who lives west of Rancho. . “If a big homebuilder would go and build a house and destroy wetlands, or if a farmer dig a pond and destroy wetlands, he would be fined. But there’s nothing they can do in Rancho Bonito.

Clark Sherwood stands on Fox Branch with Green Marsh waters flowing into the Hillsborough River from his property, Fox Branch Cattle Company north of Lakeland, off Old Dade City Road, March 13, 2021. Mr. Sherwood is ATV pilots from the neighboring Ranchio Bonito.  regularly firing weapons and damaging neighboring properties.

Threat to the Hillsborough River?

Sherwood sold a conservation easement to Swiftmud on his property in 2001. He expressed dismay that district chiefs did not address activities in Rancho that he said threaten the water quality of the Hillsborough River.

Swiftmud owns Upper Hillsborough Preserve, a nearly 10,000 acre property located approximately two miles southwest of Rancho Bonito. Protected lands protect the sources of the Hillsborough River.

“The district is aware of the complex regulatory issues at Rancho Bonito,” Swiftmud spokesperson Susanna Martinez Tarokh said via email. “The District will continue to discuss the most effective options for dealing with environmental impacts with our local and state government partners.”

Neighbors also suggest the Florida Department of Environmental Protection should get involved. They say DEP officials have skipped meetings over the years that have drawn county officials and other agencies.

Clark Sherwood indicates where he encountered a group of Rancho Bonito all-terrain vehicle drivers breaking into his property.  Behind him can be seen Fox Branch, a stream that connects to the Hillsborough River.

DEP did not respond to a request for comment from The Ledger.

Sherwood wondered if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might be able to get involved because activities at Rancho apparently altered water flows.

Although the Corps of Engineers regulates discharges to wetlands under the Clean Water Act, Florida administers this rule through a 2020 agreement with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, said a spokesperson.

Marian Ryan of the Sierra Club Ancient Islands Group, based in Polk County, said the environmental organization was not focusing on Rancho Bonito. She said the property lies outside the boundaries of the state-critical green swamp area and is not on any list of state-protected land acquisitions.

Ryan also noted the presence of a 410 acre sand mine, Kathleen Materials, west of Rancho Bonito.

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