Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation Celebrates 119,939 Acres Approved for Conservation Since 2021 Passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act

Cabinet approves an additional 39,583 acers conserving crucial linkages in the Corridor

Map by Angeline Meeks / Archbold Biological Station

May 23, 2023 – Thanks to a unanimous Cabinet vote today, 39,583 more acres of the Florida Wildlife Corridor were approved for permanent protection, bringing conserved lands within the Corridor to 119,939 acres — a win for Florida’s ecology, economy and residents. All of the properties approved for acquisition or conservation easement during the May 23 Cabinet meeting were made possible through collaboration from public and private funds and through the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection and the Florida Forever Programs.

The majority of the lands are working agricultural lands that provide habitat and connectivity for key species including the bald eagle, sandhill crane, fox squirrel, crested caracara Florida panther, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, swallow-tailed kite and more. These protected lands fall within Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Polk, St. Lucie and Walton counties.

“With today’s approvals, more than 100,000 acres of lands within or adjacent to the Florida Wildlife Corridor have been approved for conservation through a series of votes at each Cabinet meeting since the passage of the Florida Wildlife Act in 2021. On behalf of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, we thank DEP Secretary Hamilton, state and federal partners, our fellow conservation organizations, and the members of the Florida Cabinet for prioritizing funding of land acquisitions and conservation easements through the Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands Programs. Smart distribution through these funding programs will make significant progress in conserving the Florida Wildlife Corridor.  With consistent funding and a unified mission – permanently protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor – critical connections within the Corridor will be saved,” said Mallory Dimmitt, chief executive officer of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. “The time to take action is now, and our leaders understand this urgency. The Corridor is expected to lose 500,000 acres by 2030. Under the guidance of Florida’s elected leaders our state will continue to grow, and it’s important that we accelerate conservation now to protect wild Florida for future generations.”

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act became law on July 1, 2021, with unanimous bipartisan approval. The signing of the act, combined with increased awareness of the Corridor and the consistent and meaningful funding it provides, has helped increase landowner interest and applications to the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands program. With these new approvals, 119,939 acres of land will have been protected in or adjacent to the Florida Wildlife Corridor by the State of Florida since the Act became effective.

“We appreciate the support of Governor DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet for their unprecedented commitment to land conservation,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton. “These acquisitions help protect natural lands, provide linkages with other public lands, and safeguard areas needed for Florida’s wide-ranging wildlife.”

Properties specific to the May 23 Cabinet meeting were supported by the dedicated efforts of partner organizations, including Alachua Conservation Trust, Conserving Land and Water for People and Wildlife, North Florida Land Trust, Florida Wildlife Federation, and private real estate agents. Federal investments were also provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Interior, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The parcels in or adjacent to the Florida Wildlife Corridor approved during the May Cabinet meeting include:

  • A conservation easement of 2,846 acres in Charlotte County within the Ryals Citrus and Cattle project of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The Ryals Family has been ranching in Charlotte and DeSoto counties since the 1920s and have been on the current Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) project site for three generations. The property contains a 1.5-mile portion of Prairie Creek, a headwater of the Peace River, and is two miles north of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fred C. Babcock-Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area. The project is in the vicinity of several Florida Forever project sites, including the Lower Peace River Refuge, Hall Ranch, and Myakka Ranchlands.
  • A conservation easement of 1,071 acres in DeSoto County within the Keen Family Ranch project of the RFLPP from Newton D. Keen and Linda W. Keen, individually and as Co-Trustees of The Newton D. Keen and Linda W. Keen Trust. Through the approval of this easement, approximately 95% of the Keen Family Ranch RFLPP project is protected. The project is strategically located in the Peace River Watershed and will further build upon the corridor of conservation lands connecting to the protected lands in the Myakka Watershed to the west of the subject property. The Peace River supplies drinking water to more than one million people in the surrounding four counties of Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota. The health of the Peace River impacts the health of the Charlotte Harbor Estuary, which is an important recreational fishery and supports the economic vitality of Southwest Florida. In addition to supplying water to multiple parts of the region, the property also supports habitat for multiple species, including the bald eagle, sandhill crane, fox squirrel, and crested caracara.
  • Two conservation easements totaling 1,576 acres in Hardee County through the RFLPP. The conservation easement of 1,027 acres within the Charlie Creek Cattle Company project from Carol Butt Waller Sanders contains a mix of improved pasture and native range, as well as bottomland hardwood natural areas and multiple wetland habitats, including an open marsh and wildlife travel corridors. Charlie Creek, a tributary of the Peace River, flows through the property for more than three miles, is adjacent to the Fussell Old Town Creek RFLPP conservation easement and is within one mile of the Old Town Creek Watershed Florida Forever project. The property is home to state-threatened gopher tortoise and sandhill crane, and state species of special concern Sherman’s fox squirrel and burrowing owl. Additionally, the federally threatened include eastern indigo snake and swallow-tailed kite are cited as passing through the property.  The second conservation easement in Hardee County falls within the Grubb Ranch project of the RFLPP from Dale and Lori S Grubb, totaling 549 acres. The Grubb Ranch property is one mile west of the Lake Wales Ridge and half-mile from the northwest border of Highlands Hammock State Park. An approximately half-mile segment of the Little Charley Bowlegs Creek flows west through the southern end of the property, eventually joining Charlie Creek, a tributary of the Peace River. About 76 percent of the property is converted to pasture composed of Jiggs and Hematuria grasses. In addition, there are 17 acres of native range. The Grubb Ranch is adjacent to the Sandy Gully RFLPP project, and within the vicinity of numerous other conservation projects including two RFLPP projects, Charlie Creek Cattle and C&G Cattle, and two Florida Forever projects, Hardee Flatwoods and Old Town Creek Watershed.
  • Two conservation easements through the RFLPP in Highlands County totaling 3,711.03 acres. The first conservation easement in Highlands County totals 3,068.03 acres within the River Property project of the RFLPP from Doyle E Carlton III LLC. The property is located along the Kissimmee River and through this approval, the River Property RFLPP project is 100 percent protected. The property provides an excellent buffer to prevent future development along this portion of the Kissimmee River. The property is near the Pelaez and Sons RFLPP closed easement, several Wetlands Reserve Program easements, and water management district property.  The second conservation easement in Highlands County is 643 acres within the Sandy Gully project of the RFLPP from Sandy Gully Dairy, Inc. In 2019, RFLPP closed on 2,457 acres as Phase I of the property, and the Cabinet’s recent approval secures the remainder of the project. Typical species observed on the property are Florida sandhill crane, bald eagle, Sherman’s fox squirrel, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, and Florida panthers on the property.  A major wildlife corridor exists between Highlands County Sun N’ Lake Preserve (Preserve), Sandy Gully, and Highlands Hammock State Park (State Park). Sandy Gully shares three miles of its southern boundary with the State Park. Preserve staff have documented black bear and the occasional Florida panther, as well as other species, using the corridor. The property handles massive amounts of water, some of which pass to the south through Sandy Gully to the State Park. The buffer provided by Sandy Gully will allow the wildlife corridor to remain intact without fragmentation. It will also allow critical hydrological flow-ways between the three properties to remain intact.
  • A 3,634 acres conservation easement in Polk County is within the G-3 Ranch project of the RFLPP from Midway Farms, LCC, and Charles G. Grimes, Sr. Family Limited Partnership. The G-3 Ranch is predominantly a commercial Brangus cow-calf cattle operation and is enrolled in FDACS’ Best Management Practices (BMPs) program. The property includes over 1,000 acres of improved pasture of Bahia and Hermathia grasses, with the remaining uplands mainly pine flatwoods with a few small patches of scrub. The property supports an abundant population of wildlife including several rare species such as the eastern indigo snake, wood stork, and gopher tortoise. The property is within five miles of three RFLPP proposed projects (Rocking Bar W Ranch, C&G Cattle, and Charlie Creek Cattle). Old Town Creek Watershed Florida Forever project is less than a mile south of the property and the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Florida Forever Project (Crooked Lake West CE) is north of the ranch. This project is surrounded on the east and west boundaries by encroaching residential developments.
  • The 3,496 acres conservation easement within the Florida Wildlife Corridor in St. Lucie a part of the Cow Creek Ranch project through the RFLPP from Cow Creek Ranch, LLC. The project is located within the St. Lucie River Estuary basin. The basin is a focal point of the Central Everglades Restoration Project. Cow Creek Ranch’s cypress swamps and mixed hardwood forests are the headwaters of both the Cow and Cypress Creeks. Both creek systems flow into a system of drainage canals that connect to the C-23 and C-24 Canals, which ultimately flow into the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. The property contains several natural communities, including hydric hammock, cypress domes, and numerous freshwater wetlands associated with the Cow and Cypress Creeks. These communities typically provide habitat for several threatened and endangered animal species, including the Florida panther, gopher tortoise, Florida sandhill crane, wood stork, and bald eagle.  The project’s historic resources include remnants of the Basinger Grade; once a major travel route between Ft. Pierce and the Basinger Community.  Cow Creek Ranch is adjacent to several United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service Grassland and Wetland Preserve Program Easements and is also in the vicinity of the South Florida Water Management District’s Cypress Creek Complex.
  • A 1,945 acres conservation easement in Walton County within the Natural Bridge Creek project of the RFLPP from Liberty Tillman, LLC. This project is the first RFLPP acquisition through a partnership with the United States Forest Service Forest Legacy Program. The property is a sand-bottomed seepage stream, transects the subject property northeastward for approximately 2.75 miles and then disappears underground in two locations as sink and rise formation in the limestone. This geologic sink/rise formation is reported to be the westernmost in the Florida Aquifer. This project is a showpiece for longleaf pine habitat, remaining as one of the most intact examples in the region. Protection of this property will sustain a unique longleaf pine timber operation, provide a buffer for Natural Bridge Creek, protect surface water, functional wetlands, aquifer recharge, and preserve and protect the habitats of numerous species such as the threatened gopher tortoise.

Florida Forever Acquisitions:

  • The purchase of conservation easements (CE) within the Avalon Florida Forever project totaling 6,929 acres will provide a substantial contribution to the long-term protection of forestland and wetland systems in the Red Hills Region of Florida. Acquiring a less-than-fee protection of these properties will protect the wide variety of rare plant and animal species that are on site, which include the Florida black bear, gopher tortoise, southern fox squirrel, Bachman’s sparrow, and yellow fringed orchid. The property is also within the Wacissa springshed area and will provide important surface and groundwater protection. The properties lie within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
  • The 3,176-acre CE acquisition within the Bluefield to Cow Creek Florida Forever project will protect a significant portion of South Florida’s rural landscape, high-quality natural wetlands, wildlife habitat, and the water resources of the region. The conservation of this expansive, undeveloped area will protect the water quality of the St. Lucie River Estuary and Indian River Lagoon and ensure that sufficient quantities of water are available to meet the current and future needs of natural systems and the citizens of the state. The project lies within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
  • CE Acquisition of 10,464 acres within the Fisheating Creek Florida Forever project is part of a multi-phase project that contains 190,739 acres. This area has been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Primary Dispersal/Expansion Area for the federally listed endangered Florida panther. A landscape connection with other conservation lands, including federal ownership, ensures longevity for a wide range of species and provides opportunities for wetlands and water shed protection.  The property lies within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. (this is phase II)
  • Acquisition of 497 acres within the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem Florida Forever project contains one of the largest tracts of old growth longleaf pine in Florida. It also provides critical habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, sand skink, Florida sandhill crane, wood stork, and Florida scrub-jay.  The property will be managed by the Florida Forest Service as part of Indian Lakes State Forest in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service – Ocala National Forest.

To help understand the importance of these land parcels and visualize the land, Wildpath has developed a media kit with photos, video footage, and maps representing the newly approved properties. Please feel free to download and use these materials.

Quote From Partners

“The Nature Conservancy is committed to taking and encouraging action to keep the Florida Wildlife Corridor connected, shaping a better future for Florida and its residents. We thank the Florida Cabinet for its continued support and funding to make protection of these lands happen,” said Greg Knecht, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “With the additional approval of lands within or adjacent to the Corridor, Florida is leading the charge to protect and care for nature.”

“Conservation Florida applauds the extraordinary land conservation approvals made today by Governor DeSantis and the Cabinet. Almost 40,000 acres of wild and working lands are one step closer to permanent protection thanks to the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands programs being steadily funded and working at a pace commensurate with the loss of critical green space we’re encountering,” said Traci Deen, president and CEO of Conservation Florida. “Today’s approvals showcase Florida’s commitment to land conservation and the protection of a statewide wildlife corridor.”

“On behalf of the Florida State Parks Foundation we thank the Cabinet members for prioritizing the conservation of lands in and adjacent to the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” said Julia Gill Woodward, CEO of the Florida State Parks Foundation. “Enjoying the state’s natural beauty has immense health and wellness benefits that can be enjoyed within our award-winning state parks.”