Hike and optional camping at Bull Creek
This is a 3 part outing:
1. On Sat. morn at 9:00am we will met Fla. Trail/Space Coast group and help do trail work such as cutting back brush.
2. If you don’t want to come so early then come Sat. afternoon and camp with us. The campground is free but primitive-bathrooms are the portable kind and there is no running water.
3. Sunday morn hike. It is the back country that makes this property so special but it is currently under threat. We will hike 5 miles total.
Larger than most cities, Bull Creek Conservation Area in remote, eastern Osceola County also is the setting of a sweeping land saga, starting decades ago and currently in secret talks between state officials and a hall-of-fame rancher.
“It’s all speculative,” said a frustrated Bill Alexander, Florida Trail Association team leader, who fears an insider deal in the works could end public access to the best of Florida’s nature. “It’s all behind closed doors.”
The St. Johns River Water Management District has confirmed confidential appraisals are underway for a possible deal that would turn over Bull Creek land to the Kempfer ranching family, owner of the property until a half-century ago.
Way off the beaten path, with a 9-mile loop of firm, gravel road and minimum facilities, the landscape is seductive.
Among grassy-floor pine forests are “wetlands filled with seasonal lilies, orchids, blue flag iris, St. Johns wort, and pitcherplants, Northern harriers hunt over marshes during the winter. Herons, common nighthawks, and marsh rabbits are found in and around the wet prairies.”
State appraisals often are confidential initially. But the handling of Bull Creek angers opponents, who say it lacks any government transparency that at some point the land had been made eligible for a deal.
District response to concerned inquiries has been with form emails: “There will be opportunities for members of the community to provide feedback.”
In 1967, a flood-control agency forced the Kempfers to sell part of their Osceola holdings: $115 for each of 16,900 acres, worth $14 million today.
The acquired land was to help carve the St. Johns River into an enormous drainage ditch for agricultural benefit.
By the early 1970s, government came to its environmental senses and dumped the project as poised to destroy the state’s longest river.
Kempfer land was turned over to Florida’s game warden for caretaking. Other tracts were added, growing the property to 23,646 acres, or twice the size of the nearest city, St. Cloud. It was called Bull Creek Conservation Area.
The Kempfers would fight to get their land back.
“You cut me in half once for a project and never did anything with it except making hunting land,” said Billy Kempfer, telling the Orlando Sentinel 20 years ago what he had told the state.
Except it’s not merely hunting land.
State biologists, using controlled fire and other labor-intensive means year after year for decades, nurtured already healthy nature into pristine land. Care of Bull Creek now costs nearly $400,000 annually.
An outing with Friends of Bull Creek, Florida Trail Association and Sierra Club took in a mosaic of longleaf pine, wire grass, scrub, cypress dome and oak hammock.
A pair of bald eagles swooped acrobatically through tree tops, revealing power in their wings with a flash of acceleration.
Bull Creek drains to Jane Green Creek, named from a settler fabled for selling her favors. A place to ford Bull Creek, Mizell Crossing, is where Orange County Sheriff David Mizell was killed in 1870, triggering a blood feud.
“If you appreciate the real Florida, this is it,” said Don Aycock, Friends of Bull Creek president.
Defenders of the wilderness don’t know whether the Kempfers would use Bull Creek for a hunting resort, cattle grazing or a development scheme. The neighboring Deseret Ranches has secured rights to build a metropolitan area in coming decades.
In 1981, the Kempfers sued the St. Johns water district for a years-long court fight.
Then, in the late 1980s, Billy Kempfer joined the water district, taking a seat on its Agricultural Advisory Committee, which has direct access to district leaders.
Kempfer, acknowledged property-rights champion, became chairman of the committee two years ago.
The state’s wildlife commission previously opposed the water district in its bid to give Bull Creek land to the Kempfers because of its “high-quality hunting.”
Just four years ago, and under different leadership, the St. Johns district did its most in-depth review of land holdings, concluding Bull Creek should remain intact.
Sierra Club’s Doug Sphar thinks the water district will market a land trade by trumpeting the value of Kempfer wetlands and deeply undervaluing public access to that particular paradise.
“They should turn the property over to some other state entity that has a mission for managing preservation and conservation lands,” Sphar said.