Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration have approved 10 land and conservation easement acquisitions totaling more than 17,000 acres to preserve wildlife and natural habitats.
The land will be managed and monitored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), or the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Seven of the projects, totaling 16,706 acres, are in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
“These essential land and conservation easement acquisitions are important to protecting Florida's rich natural areas and will preserve Florida's critical ecosystems,” DeSantis said in a news release. "Since day one, my administration has prioritized protecting and restoring Florida's environment and natural resources."
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton said the state has approved over 113,000 acres of land and conservation easements for acquisition through the Florida Forever program since 2019.
The state’s Florida Forever program is “transparent, accountable, and science-based,” Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, said. “… The most important places are being protected for a reasonable price, and willing sellers can be confident their projects are evaluated on their merits.”
Land acquisitions were approved for five Florida Forever projects. They include property within the Wolfe Creek Forest project, the Wakulla Springs Protection Zone project, the Pumpkin Hill Creek project, areas in the state’s Strategic Managed Area Lands List, and a part of the Florida Keys Ecosystem.
Conservation Florida CEO Traci Deen said the approved projects “are examples of the power of partnership between agencies, nonprofit land trusts and landowners – and how beneficial it is to the protection of Florida’s biodiversity, wildlife corridor, water, and rural lands.”
In the Wolfe Creek Forest project, 3,610 acres were approved adjacent to Blackwater River State Forest. It’s part of a large-phased landscape acquisition partnership among the DEP’s Division of State Lands, Santa Rosa County, the U.S. Navy, and others.
In the Wakulla Springs Protection Zone project, 313 acres were acquired to help connect the Wakulla State Forest north to south from the Leon-Wakulla County line south to the existing WSF. Preserving this area will “help provide a vital linkage, additional public access and recreational opportunities within WSF, and protect the vital water resources of Wakulla Springs, the Wakulla River, St. Marks River, and Apalachee Bay estuary,” the governor’s office said.
Within the Pumpkin Hill Creek project, 241 acres were approved as part of the Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park. Within it are four known archaeological sites that contain evidence of human history dating back 4,000 years. The acquisition falls in the Seven Creeks Recreation Area, including creeks, preserves, and parks managed by local, state, and federal governments and local non-profit organizations.
Within the Florida Forever program’s Strategic Managed Area Lands List, another 160 acres were approved. It’s “critical for the overall protection of the regional water supply as well as the entire Floridan Aquifer,” the governor’s office said. The acquisition allows the property “to remain in its natural state, aiding in water resource sustainability by restricting development, preserving natural systems and promoting water retention and aquifer recharge.”
Another 2.85 acres were acquired to add to the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area.
The approved projects are a “win for Swallow-tailed Kites, black bears, water quality, climate resilience, and the natural heritage of all Floridians," Wraithmell said.
Five conservation easements were approved, including within the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem project, the Red Hills Conservation project, Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem project, and two projects in the FDACS Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
More than 864 acres were approved for the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem project designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as habitat critical to the endangered Florida panther. It’s an 11-mile-long by one-mile-wide wildlife corridor around Chaparral Slough, a tributary to Cypress Branch.
More than 4,132 acres in the Red Hills Conservation project were approved. It's an area that’s been used for agriculture and recreational hunting since the early 1900s. The acquisition will protect the region, preserve archaeological and historic sites, and increase the amount of natural forestland available for sustainable management of natural resources.
“Longleaf pine forests are some of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world. Protecting this landscape not only benefits rare native plants and wildlife, but it also provides exciting new recreational opportunities and supports our national defense operations at NAS Whiting Field," Doug Hattaway, senior project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said. Over the last five years, the Trust for Public Land, the DEP and others “leveraged federal, state and local conservation and military base buffering funds to protect over 10,000 acres of contiguous lands critical for longleaf pine restoration work,” he says.
Another 354 acres in the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem were also approved. It includes property contiguous to Highlands Hammock State Park and falls within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.