by Bethany Blankley
The Florida Cabinet approved spending more than $56 million on seven parcels of land totaling 19,897 acres within the Florida Wildlife Corridor for acquisition or conservation easement made possible by the state’s Florida Forever Program and Department of Agriculture’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
The overwhelming majority of the properties, more than 98%, are within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a mix of native and working lands that provide habitat for key Florida species including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, swallow-tailed kite, and gopher tortoise, among others.
“Conservation of these key properties will forever benefit water quality, rare wildlife habitats and corridor linkages, as well as support Florida’s ever-growing economy,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton said the projects will “provide protection to imperiled species and connectivity for recreational and wildlife corridors and will support the preservation of Florida’s natural landscapes for future generations.”
The announcement comes after Florida approved 10 land and conservation easement acquisitions in March. Prior to this week’s announcement, Hamilton said Florida had approved over 113,000 acres of land and conservation easements for acquisition through the Florida Forever program since 2019. Now that total is over 133,000.
“The Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation and our partners appreciate Governor Ron DeSantis and the Board of Trustees’ commitment to protecting Florida’s wild legacy for future generations and ensuring working lands can stay working lands,” Mallory Dimmitt, chief executive officer of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, said.
Dimmit notes that the acquisitions approved on Tuesday came one year after the historic bipartisan Florida Wildlife Corridor Act became law last July.
The acquisitions had the support of The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Florida, Florida Conservation Group, and private real estate agents. Federal investment was also provided from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. Three of the approved properties are within the newly designated Northwest Florida Sentinel Landscape in the panhandle. Four are in central Florida, stretching from Kissimmee in the northeast, southwest to Hendrie Ranch.
The acquisitions include an additional 768 acres within the Wolfe Creek Florida Forever Project in Santa Rosa County. This acreage is part of an ongoing strategic partnership between federal, state, local and private entities. The acquisition expands public recreational opportunities and provides a corridor between Blackwater River State Forest and other state-owned conservation lands near Whiting Field Naval Air Station. The property will be managed by the Florida Forest Service as an addition to Blackwater River State Forest.
Another is a 376-acre property within the St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever Project in Franklin County that will be managed by the Florida Forest Service. It expands Tate’s Hell State Forest and creates access for wildlife to nearly two miles of streams that flow into the East Bay.
The third is a conservation easement covering 11,958 acres within the Horse Creek Ranch Florida Forever Project in DeSoto and Hardee counties. With the Southwest Florida Water Management District purchasing a conservation easement over Carlton Horse Creek Ranch’s remaining acreage, the total easement acreage will be more than 16,000. Located in the Peace River Basin, it will help to ensure the continued protection of the area’s drinking water supply and support the area’s tourism industry and local commercial and sport fishing industry.
The fourth and fifth include conservation easements of 3,634 and 615 acres within the Kissimmee-St. Johns River Connector Florida Forever Project to create habitat and hydrological connections in Okeechobee County. Located near Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, the easements are part of a key region of the Northern Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area and will benefit a range of wildlife.
The sixth includes a conservation easement of 1,882 acres within the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem Florida Forever Project in Highlands County. Acquired through the Florida Forest Service’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, it’s located within the Buck Island Ranch Rural and Family Lands Protection Program project.
The final acquisition covers 663 acres within the Lake Wales Ridge Florida Forever Project in Highlands County. It was acquired through the Florida Forest Service’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. It’s adjacent to several conservation lands, including the Archbold Biological Station, Fisheating Creek/Smoak Groves conservation easement and Fisheating Creek/Lykes Brothers conservation easement.
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