When you’re hiking or riding through beautiful country, look around – there’s a good possibility The Nature Conservancy helped preserve either the ground you’re on or a nearby view. For over 50 years, with your support, we’ve helped protect more than 1.2 million acres of land in Florida!
While “quietly conserving nature,” the Conservancy often has worked behind the scenes to identify important properties and find unique strategies to get a deal done. Our real estate and legal teams have sought out and befriended landowners whose deeply-held conservation values set them apart from their contemporaries.
You may not remember some early deals, which encompassed huge swaths of natural lands that would be unaffordable in today’s real estate market. Six Conservancy representatives, past and present, reminisce below. Enjoy!
Wakulla Springs State Park, Near Tallahassee
Keith Fountain, was the Conservancy’s director of protection from 1992 - 2012
Some think Wakulla Springs – one of the highest volume springs in the United States – may be the longest and deepest cave system in the world. Humans are believed to have lived in the area for nearly 15,000 years. The remains of ancient mastodons and nine other extinct mammals were found as deep as 1,200 feet into a cave, and some remain visible today.
“A financier-philanthropist named Edward Ball purchased the land in 1934 to preserve native wildlife,” says Fountain. “But I'm told that when he was ready to sell in the mid-1980s, the state was in no position to buy. So the Conservancy took on an important role.
“Working with the Northwest Florida Water Management District and The Mellon Foundation, our staff brokered the transaction and got interim financing for a little over 10,000 acres,” Fountain continues. “A few years later the state took ownership because then-Gov. Bob Graham very much wanted it saved. This resulted in a grand legacy for Ed Ball, the governor, the Conservancy – and protected a huge resource for the Floridan Aquifer and for you.”
Today the popular park offers abundant wildlife, riverboat tours, swimming and nature trails, as well as a public dining room and meeting facilities at the historic lodge.
Jennings State Forest, Near Jacksonville
Wendy Mathews, 1992-present, currently conservation projects manager
One of the finest examples of Conservancy efforts to protect wildlife corridors, this forest helps link the Ocala National Forest and the Osceola National Forest. Mostly high and dry, the forest has high-quality sandhill lakes, longleaf pine and rare northeast Florida seepage stream habitat.
“This corridor is of great benefit to many rare species, including the Florida black bear, and it also helps protect important Upper Black Creek watersheds,” says Mathews. “Hikers here may spot wading birds, songbirds, wild turkey and hawks.”
The Conservancy worked through the state’s Preservation 2000 program and the Save Our Rivers program to purchase around 12,000 high-priority acres from 1991-93. The forest has since expanded to 23,997 acres, all well managed by the Division of Forestry.
“Conservancy staff got a call from a Mr. Jennings, whose Jacksonville family had owned the land a long time, and apparently negotiated a nice purchase for the state,” Mathews adds. “The St. Johns River Water Management District collaborated, and that agency then went on to buy several adjacent properties.
“Identifying and protecting these huge, wild tracts is part of the Conservancy’s most valuable work. It’s been critical to Florida’s native plants and animals.”
Goethe State Forest, Levy County
George Willson was the Conservancy’s director of protection from 1984-99.
When George Willson questioned Mr. J.T. Goethe about 2,000 acres in his huge Levy County forest property in the early 1990s, Goethe tossed him the keys to all his landholdings and told Willson to come back when the Conservancy was ready to deal.
“I came back later that year,” offers Willson. “At 92, Mr. Goethe had become concerned about his retirement years and asked if we’d like to buy it all.”
The Conservancy quickly collaborated with partners and assisted the state in purchasing about 40,000 acres, which the Department of Environmental Protection negotiated.
“There was huge pressure from timber companies that were lobbying for rights to the trees,” continues Willson. “As a third party, the Conservancy offered a trusted, independent voice.
“Governor Chiles’ chief of staff asked me to testify about the $60 million price – a record at the time. I explained it was a great deal, and the Cabinet voted unanimously to buy the tract. This great state forest came about in large part due to our efforts with the landowner and state officials.”
Today, at 53,587 acres, the multi-use forest includes a vast tract of longleaf pine flatwoods and 15 different natural communities.
Bright Hour Ranch, Desoto County
Richard Hilsenbeck, 1991-present, currently director of conservation projects
In 1994, Conservancy staff studying aerial photographs of southwest Florida spotted a 72-square-mile mosaic of natural lands, unmarred by roads or development. Calvin Houghland, then 83, had bought the property 30 years earlier to raise cattle, hunt, and relax with family.
After following up with the landowner, “I spent some of the best months of my career working on this property,” recounts Richard Hilsenbeck. “A book could be devoted to the way Bright Hour Ranch pioneered environmental conservation, which Mr. Houghland saw as a moral imperative.
“The ranch’s interior was well-managed for wildlife, water, cattle and natural habitats. In 1995, it received the Commissioner’s Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award in Florida.”
Hilsenbeck’s evaluations qualified the ranch for conservation programs. He also proposed, and helped to negotiate and monitor, a conservation easement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District for 28,274 acres of the ranch’s highest quality lands. The easement allowed cattle grazing, but prohibits future development in perpetuity. The property has since sold, easement intact, to another owner.
“Scores of native Florida animal species call Bright Hour Ranch home,” Hilsenbeck adds, “including crested caracara, burrowing owls, Florida grasshopper sparrow, eastern indigo snakes and numerous other federally listed vertebrate species – even the Florida panther. Two of its 12 natural communities are globally imperiled, and the ranch includes the headwaters of the water supply for the city of Punta Gorda.”
Dupuis Reserve, Palm Beach/Martin counties
Angela Klug, 1999-present, currently director of real estate
Located two miles from the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, a property known as White Belt Ranch was owned by the wealthy and fascinating Mrs. Dupuis and her husband, a veterinarian. Former Conservancy staff members fondly recall long phone chats with Mrs. Dupuis about her properties.
“Nat Reed, a wonderful Conservancy friend and supporter, apparently knew the Dupuis family well,” says Klug. “Very involved in land protection, Nat encouraged this purchase in 1986. The Conservancy negotiated for 21,935 acres that proved to be a valuable and timely acquisition.”
Now named after the Dupuis family, the reserve is owned by South Florida Water Management District and managed by Florida’s Division of Forestry. It hosts four loop hiking trails developed by the Florida Trail Association.
“Like most of South Florida, much of this land had been drained for ranchland,” continues Klug. “The water management district plans to restore the historic wetlands. A 15-mile walk takes you through impressive landscapes of pine flatwoods, ponds, cypress domes and wet prairies. Visitors can look out for bald eagles and will see lots of herons and white ibis.”
Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Key Largo
Dick Ludington was our first-and-only employee from 1977-79, working as state director from his kitchen table. He was regional director of real estate from 1982-85.
Forty miles south of Miami, this property with a bizarre history is closed to the public. The 6,700-acre refuge was established in the early 1980s, with the Conservancy’s help, to protect critical breeding and nesting habitat for the endangered American crocodile and other rare resident and migratory wildlife. The reserve abuts a number of other protected lands.
“A large portion of the current refuge had been subdivided for residential development as the city of North Key Largo Beach, complete with canals for boating,” remembers Ludington. “Dredge-spoil from the canal system was piled up on the banks.
“It was slow-going to buy all those little pieces,” he offers. “Altogether, the Conservancy purchased a thousand acres of mangroves and hammock, using state and federal funds.”
It was also dangerous. “Dynamite Dock was a WWII harbor where explosives had been brought in. And marijuana was an issue – we’d go in with state and federal police, armed. Sometimes we were turned back because of ongoing drug deals involving speed boats and Miami drug runners.
“Somebody cut down the U.S. champion mahogany tree in North Key Largo – part of the largest, contiguous tropical hardwood forest in the continental U.S. – to illegally collect the tree’s rare dollar orchids,” adds Ludington. “The chapter’s $100 donors got a slice of the tree’s limbs as a memento.
“The Cold War-era Nike Missile Facility was also located there. This place was unique.”