Corridor Conservation Update January 2023

More than 3,500 acres will be conserved through land acquisitions and conservation easements

January 18, 2023 – The Florida Cabinet had a lot to celebrate during its first meeting of the year. In addition to welcoming the state’s new Commissioner of Agriculture, Wilton Simpson, they approved five parcels of land totaling more than 3,500 acres. Three out of the five properties fall within or are adjacent to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. All five of the properties approved for acquisition or conservation easement were made possible by the state’s Florida Forever Program and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

These five parcels of land are a mix of Sentinel Landscape, native and working lands that provide habitat and connectivity for key Florida species including the Florida manatee, Florida scrub jay, Florida pine snake, Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle, swallow-tailed kite, crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, wood storks, gopher tortoise, and the federally endangered grasshopper sparrow. These protected lands fall within Charlotte, Okeechobee, Osceola, Marion, and Nassau counties.

“The Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation recognizes the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis and the Board of Trustees in connecting and protecting our state’s wild spaces,” said Mallory Dimmitt, Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. “By connecting Florida’s Wildlife Corridor, we are collectively safeguarding habitats for dozens of species at risk and providing irreplaceable recreation, conservation and cultural value. This public commitment of more than $17.7 million will help preserve these vital landscapes for future generations.”

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act became law on July 1, 2021, with unanimous bipartisan approval. The signing of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, combined with increased awareness of the Corridor and consistent and meaningful funding it provides, has helped increase landowner interest and applications to the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands program. Through today’s vote, an additional 2,951 acres of land will be protected in the Florida Wildlife Corridor through public investment by the State of Florida since the Act, bringing the total land conservated within the Corridor to 59,293 acres.

“We want to thank Governor DeSantis and the Cabinet for supporting state land conservation goals through these important acquisitions,” said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton. “Investing in these properties helps increase the protection of Florida’s unique natural landscapes and wildlife habitats.”

Properties specific to the January 24 Cabinet meeting were supported by the dedicated efforts of partner organizations, like Conservation Florida, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, and private real estate agents. Federal investments were also provided by the Department of the Air Force, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We thank Governor, the Cabinet, and the Department of Environmental Protection for continuing to support critical land acquisitions to protect our natural and agricultural landscapes,” said Traci Deen, President and CEO, Conservation Florida. “The conservation of land to create a conserved wildlife corridor spanning our state is not only necessary for wildlife such as the Florida panther, black bear, and gopher tortoise, but also for protecting our water, economy, and way of life. With today’s approval of our Role Tran and Gissy Rainbow River Ranch projects, both properties are on their way to being protected for generations to come and we move the needle forward on the protection of a functional Florida Wildlife Corridor.”

“Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast is grateful to the Governor and Cabinet for approving these vital conservation projects. Land conservation is urgent work, and we are honored to help quicken its pace here in Florida,” Christine Johnson, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast President. “As a fifth-generation Floridian, I grew up hearing my family’s stories about our wild places, making this work especially close to my heart. It’s incumbent upon all of us to work together and prioritize the safeguarding of our natural resources and the wildlife that depend on them.”

· The Gissy Rainbow River Ranch (Ranch) project, part of the Rainbow River Corridor Florida Forever Project and lies within the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, is a 135-acre conservation easement. The property is southwest of Marion County in the City of Dunnellon and serves as an important link to existing conservation land. The Ranch borders the Rainbow Springs State Park, the City of Dunnellon’s Blue Run of Dunnellon Park, and the Rainbow River. Rainbow River has one of the largest spring runs in the world and is a designated National Natural Landmark, an aquatic preserve, and an Outstanding Florida Waterway. Restricting development on the subject property is crucial for the protection of the water quality, and the flora and fauna along, the Rainbow River. This project will increase biodiversity protection through the conservation of rare species’ habitats, preserve landscape linkages and conservation corridors, protect surface waters of the state, preserve aquifer recharge areas, and increase natural resource-based recreation.

· Palmer W. Collins Trust (known as Collins Ranch), part of the Osceola Pine Savannas Florida Forever project, is a 287-acre conservation easement that is part of a project containing 46,628 acres, of which 23,526 acres have been acquired or are under agreement to be acquired. The property is in Saint Cloud and shares its boundaries with U.S. 441 and Triple N Ranch Wildlife Management Areas. This project will eliminate the threat of encroaching residential development and protect wildlife that requires extensive natural areas such as the sandhill crane, wood stork, crested caracara, and the federally endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. The project lies within the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.

· The Triple Diamond Ranch project is part of the Triple Diamond Florida Forever Project and one of Florida’s Sentinel Landscapes. The conservation easement is over 2,529 acres and is funded under the Military Agreement section, provided by the Department of the Air Force. The property is in northwest Okeechobee County and is bordered by Kissimmee River Prairie Preserve State Park. Other public lands close by include Avon Park Air Force Range, Bombing Range Ridge, the Kissimmee River, and Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, and Blue Cypress Conservation Area. The Kissimmee-St. Johns River Connector Florida Forever project is also located within seven miles of the property. The project lies within a wildlife corridor in the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.

· The land acquisition within Charlotte Harbor Estuary Florida Forever Project totals 8.68 acres and was ranked number one in Florida Forever Substantially Complete project category. The project is made possible in part by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and contains 47,197 acres, of which 41,320 acres have been acquired or are under agreement to be acquired. The Charlotte Harbor Estuary is one of the largest and most productive estuaries in Florida and supports a vital recreational and commercial fishery. The property is in western Charlotte County and shares its boundary with Don Pedro Island State Park and Charlotte County managed lands. The project aims to protect the remaining natural areas around Charlotte Harbor by conserving flatwoods, scrub, and salt marshes that support bald eagles, sandhill cranes, Florida scrub jays, and Florida manatees.

· The land acquisition in Tiger Island/Little Tiger Island Florida Forever project is ranked number 11 in the Florida Forever Climate Change Lands project category. The project is a 565-acre land acquisition located in Nassau County, adjacent to the Fort Clinch State Park Aquatic Preserve. This property connects a network of national and state preserves as well as parks that stretch from St. Andrews Sound in Georgia to the St. Johns River in Florida. Conservation of the lands will protect estuarine tidal marsh along the St. Mary’s River, Amelia River, and a network of smaller connecting rivers and creeks as well as maritime hammock on the elevated islands in the extensive tidal march ecosystem. The project area has one of the highest nesting concentrations of Worthington’s marsh wren and MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow along the Florida coast and provides critical habitat for wintering populations of the piping plover. Additionally, the project will protect important cultural resources that document pottery-making aboriginal populations who inhabited the coastal islands as early as the second millennium B.C.

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.