GAINESVILLE – More than 27,000 rural acres near Yeehaw Junction in Florida’s southern Osceola County has been gifted to the University of Florida to protect one of the last natural areas of its kind and to serve as a living classroom and laboratory for students and faculty throughout the university, UF officials announced this week. Elisabeth DeLuca’s contribution is among the largest gifts of real estate ever to any university in the nation.
“Few things in this world are as precious — and threatened — as our untamed lands and the wild animals that live there,” Elisabeth DeLuca said. “We need to preserve what we can for the benefit of all of us. These acres are in good hands with the University of Florida, and it pleases me to know that UF will use them to learn more about our natural world and to train new generations of scientists and environmentalists.”
The property — which includes cattle ranchlands, citrus groves, wetlands and forests — is one of the last refuges for the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, and hosts many other state and federally listed species such as the Florida panther, gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker. The property provides a critical nature corridor between the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. The land is also a conservation focal area for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
In addition to protecting threatened wildlife, UF will use the property to, among other things: measure hunting’s impact on the ecosystem to control wild boars; determine how cattle grazing affects plants, insects and animals; teach land and forest management; study water storage and conservation; and conduct student and researcher fieldwork. The site is expected to host classes ranging from plant and soil sciences to entomology and wildlife ecology. The ranch provides a centralized location for Extension-related services as well as offering a unique natural classroom for students taking part in Florida 4-H.
The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) along with numerous colleges within the university will direct research on the property. Some of that research, scientists hope, will help land developers, conservationists and policymakers learn how to balance growth, agriculture and preservation around the state. University officials believe work done there will also create opportunities for community collaboration and large-scale research, which will set UF apart from its peer institutions.
“Elisabeth DeLuca’s generous contribution of such a significant property is a gift to all Floridians and really, to people everywhere,” said UF President Kent Fuchs. “The preservation of this land and what it will enable our scholars to learn, teach and achieve will reverberate around the globe.”
In assuming ownership of the land, UF will maintain the current operational and revenue-generating activities taking place on the tract to ensure that it is financially self-sustaining.
In addition to donating the land to UF, the donor has placed a conservation easement on the property and has selected Ducks Unlimited, the world’s largest not-for-profit private organization dedicated to wetlands conservation, to be the recipient of this easement. In structuring the gift of land between UF and Duck’s Unlimited in this way, the donor has created conservation protections while still making it possible for important teaching, education, and research to take place. Together, UF and Ducks Unlimited will ensure that the land remains protected and sustainable for generations to come, officials said.
“This Kissimmee Prairie landscape is in the Everglades headwaters, yet at the edge of central Florida’s tourism and development core and is now a permanently protected piece of the conservation puzzle,” said DU CEO Adam Putnam. “For generations to come, students and researchers will make new discoveries alongside migrating waterfowl, endangered red cockaded woodpeckers and grasshopper sparrows on this massive outdoor laboratory. Future ranchers, waterfowlers, nature lovers and wildlife scientists will be able to apply what they’ve read in textbooks to what they’re observing on the landscape, thanks to Elisabeth DeLuca. This partnership between the University of Florida and Ducks Unlimited benefits waterfowl, wildlife and millions of Floridians who value clean water and the protection of the natural landscape.”
J. Scott Angle, UF’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said the Yeehaw Junction land’s diversity and large size will bring the university’s discovery and teaching to heights rarely reached in academic pursuits.
“This gift is a precious piece of Florida that will become the premier living laboratory for natural resource management research and study,” said Angle. “UF/IFAS researchers and students will have unprecedented access to a pristine area of diverse habitats to benefit conservation efforts.”
This property, along with other state and federal lands, comprise 250,000 acres of protected areas of the Northern Everglades Headwaters which is an important ecosystem for wildlife corridors, watershed protection, flood mitigation and endangered species habitat. Livestock grazing is a highly compatible and economically important management strategy on this landscape.
The Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund provided critical funding via the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida to help endow Ducks Unlimited’s permanent conservation easement and other costs associated with this once-a-generation gift of land.
“We’re thrilled to partner with Ducks Unlimited and the University of Florida to help conserve this outstanding habitat, which will serve as a national model showcasing how wildlife management, water conservation and ranching can thrive together,” said Bob Ziehmer, Senior Director of Conservation at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. “We are grateful to our customers who, by rounding up purchases in our stores and online to the Outdoor Fund, directly support key conservation projects like this.”