TALLAHASSEE – Thanks to a unanimous Cabinet vote, 21,063 more acres of the Florida Wildlife Corridor gained permanent protection. All of the properties approved for acquisition or conservation easement were made possible through collaboration by organizations including Florida Conservation Group, Conservation Florida, The Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land, and the state’s Florida Forever Program.
The lands are a mix of native and working lands that provide habitat and connectivity for key Florida species including the Florida scrub jay, Apalachicola gopher tortoise, Eastern indigo snake, Florida black bear and the Florida panther. These protected lands fall within Highlands, Manatee, Osceola, Santa Rosa and Liberty counties.
“The work to create and preserve the Florida Wildlife Corridor precedes us and will outlast us — it’s ambitious, it’s difficult, it’s visionary, it’s essential. This legacy can only be secured through collaborative efforts from partners across the state. This includes our state agencies, landowners, business owners, and non-governmental organizations like Florida Conservation Group, Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land to name a few,” said Mallory Dimmitt, chief executive officer of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. “With ‘a big tent’ mindset, we can leverage our best creative thinking, relationship building and collaborative problem solving to continue to conserve and connect Florida’s wild spaces. Florida deserves nothing less.”
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, 80,356 acres of land will have been protected in the Florida Wildlife Corridor by the State of Florida since the Act became effective.
“These approvals mark a crucial moment in permanently protecting and creating a landscape corridor, providing safe habitat for wide-ranging and sensitive species,” said Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Shawn Hamilton.
Properties specific to the March 13 Cabinet meeting were supported by the dedicated efforts of partner organizations, including Archbold Biological Station, Conservation Florida, The Conservation Fund, North Florida Land Trust, Trust for Public Land 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.
The five parcels protected are:
• The Lightsey Family Ranch project is a 1,285-acre conservation easement that is part of the Blue Head Ranch Florida Forever Project, which lies within the Florida Ecological Greenways Network. Lightsey Family Ranch, or LTL Holdings, will be permanently protected through the state’s Florida Forever program, and is within the Blue Head Ranch boundary which is ranked number 4 in the Florida Forever Critical Natural Lands project category, approved by the Board of Trustees on March 29, 2022. The overall project contains 43,051 acres of which 1,285 acres are now under agreement to be acquired in this project area. The property is in southwestern Highlands County, contiguous to Archbold Biological Station to the north, and on the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge. Blue Head Ranch is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and protects Fisheating Creek, one of the most important tributaries to Lake Okeechobee and Everglades watershed, which has long been a focus of conservation investment. Protection of this parcel by conservation easement will benefit wide-ranging species such as the Florida panther and black bear, as well as provide habitat for at-risk species and migratory birds. Further, this conservation easement will help to permanently protect the creek and benefit water quality and help safeguard Florida’s ranching heritage and rural livelihoods.
• The property at Big Sloth Ranch, located within the Myakka Ranchlands Florida Forever Project, is a 1,611-acre conservation easement in Manatee County that is part of a project containing 49,030 acres, of which 19,964 acres have been acquired or are under agreement for acquisition. The property comprises multiple tracts on both the north and south sides of Myakka River State Park, which protects a system of conservation areas, making a connection among state, county, water management district and nonprofit conservation lands in Southwest Florida. The conservation easements will be a part of two subject properties, owned by Big Slough Ranch, LLC and Land South Manatee, LLC. Through this conservation easement, both properties can provide habitat for species including the crested caracara, Florida burrowing owl, gopher tortoise, Florida sandhill crane and southeastern American kestrel. By contributing to the creation of a landscape corridor, the properties provide potential habitat for wide-ranging and sensitive species such as the Eastern indigo snake, Florida black bear and Florida panther. The project lies within the Florida Wildlife Corridor in the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.
• The Big Bend Swamp/Holopaw project is located within the Big Bend Swamp/Holopaw Ranch Florida Forever Project. The conservation easement of 4,222 acres is in Osceola County. This conservation easement is part of a larger conservation project containing 52,510 acres, of which 15,884 acres have been acquired or are under agreement for acquisition. Conservation of the property will protect and maintain a link of natural lands between Bull Creek and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. Numerous species of unique wildlife live in the expanses of palmetto prairies, pine flatwoods and cypress swamps, including the crested caracara, red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and other wildlife that require these large natural areas. This project may also help complete the Florida National Scenic Trail, a statewide nonmotorized trail that crosses several Florida Forever project sites. The project lies within the Florida Wildlife Corridor in the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.
• The land acquisition within Wolfe Creek Forest Florida Forever Project totals 1,506 acres and is part of the Northwest Florida Sentinel Landscape. The project is in central Santa Rosa County, near Milton, between Blackwater River State Forest to the east and Whiting Field Naval Air Station to the southwest. It shares 5.7 miles of its southern boundary with two disjoined tracts of the state forest, and its acquisition will secure an uninterrupted connection among all three tracts. Most of the project is in various states of managed pine plantation in areas that historically supported upland pine forest and sandhills. The land includes wetlands and associated bottomland forest, floodplain swamps and bay galls. The upland natural communities include a few small areas of mesic flatwoods and hammock. The project lies within the Florida Wildlife Corridor in the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.
• The land acquisition within the Telogia Creek Florida Forever Project is part of the Northwest Florida Sentinel Landscape and the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The 12,439-acre subject property is in northern Liberty County on the south side of State Road 20, between Bristol and Hosford. The project provides for wildlife-based public outdoor opportunities and allows for the protection of several imperiled species, such as the gopher tortoise, Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle, and eastern indigo and Florida pine snakes.
In addition to approval of these new properties, the Cabinet also approved the 2023 Florida Forever Priority List and Annual Work Plan. At the beginning of each calendar year, the Florida Forever Work Plan is developed by the Division of State Lands from the high and high-medium priority projects on the priority list. The work plan guides the annual expenditure of the Florida Forever funding made available by the Legislature and reports the balance of Florida Forever appropriations, funding commitments for pending acquisitions and other related expenses for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Conservation Florida is grateful to the Governor, the Florida Cabinet, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their devotion to protecting our wild and agricultural lands, and for continuing to support critical land acquisitions such as this,” said Traci Deen, President and CEO of Conservation Florida. “The conservation of the Lightsey Family Ranch is a great example of an easement acquisition with multiple benefits as it adds to the protection of endangered wildlife, native plants, water, and green space while also contributing to the local rural economy,” added Deen. “More, this property further conserves and builds a functional Florida Wildlife Corridor.”
“At The Conservation Fund, we work to protect America’s lands and waters, with a dual mission of conservation and sustainable economic development,” said Lauren Day, Florida State Director of The Conservation Fund. “The conservation of properties, such as Telogia Creek, protects nature and creates jobs by providing secure habitat for wildlife, increased recreational opportunities for Floridians and visitors, and opportunities to spur economic activity around the recreational uses of wild spaces.”