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THPO monitors FPL solar panel project near Big Cypress

The solar panels at FPL’s Hammock solar energy center in LaBelle in 2018. (Courtesy FPL)

BIG CYPRESS — Since Seminoles have lived throughout the state for hundreds of years, preserving evidence of the past can be a challenge when faced with off-reservation construction projects in areas that are part of the tribe’s history.


That’s where the Tribal Historic Preservation Office comes in. THPO is responsible for documenting and preserving any historical evidence they can find, some of which is no longer visible. A recent example is the Florida Power & Light’s solar panel project just north of the Big Cypress Reservation.


The FPL Sawgrass Solar Energy Center, under construction now, will cover more than 500 acres and contain about 250,000 solar panels. It is expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2022 and will generate 74.5 megawatts of energy at any given time, enough to power about 15,000 homes per year.


The tribe recently approved an alternative mitigation agreement with FPL to ensure culturally significant sites are respected and left alone when possible. The challenge is to preserve an area known only from oral histories and old maps but is no longer intact, such as an old trail on the property that THPO is researching.


“How do you find something from old maps and oral histories when nothing is physically there,” pondered Juan Cancel, THPO assistant director. “A lot of stories are there; you can go back to hundreds of years of maps and find a road that has been used and sometimes still is. It’s difficult to find where the road would have been historically.”


THPO’s tribal employees monitor the construction process. The monitors, with vast cultural knowledge, spot things others may miss. The goal is to protect historical sites while working within the bounds of the FPL agreements. The original agreement has been in effect since April 2016.


THPO has surveyed and investigated the site since 2014 using drones, metal detectors and maps. Before construction began, THPO also reviewed archeological surveys and set aside conservation areas which are protected from construction.


Cancel believes the likelihood of finding anything significant is low, but included in the FPL agreement are some specific areas where old trails are thought to be located. There is a point in which the old trail crosses paths with a newly graded construction road in an area that is not in the conservation area.


“You can’t fully protect those areas because the trail is unique, transitory and not physical,” Cancel said. “To offset any impact, we created the alternative mitigation agreement, which has some covenants and obligations.”


For instance, all solar panels must be 50 feet from the center line of the trail to avoid and minimize disturbance of the cultural area. The access road was constructed before the agreement, but THPO took video of the site before the road was built.


Tribal monitors were present during the access road construction, but any new discoveries will be addressed by the tribe, archeologists and FPL through the unanticipated discoveries section of the first agreement.


During the next two years, THPO plans to create a website with a story map of the area and its history, including the old trail. Cancel said it will connect the oral history and maps with video clips of the site today and create a legacy of the cultural landscape.


“Tribal history goes beyond reservation borders,” Cancel said. “[The tribe has] always been part of this landscape. If we can connect the history, we can tell the story for the community and the youth so we don’t lose it. That’s the goal.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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