By Judy Althaus
Across the nation, many Americans enrich their lives by visiting protected natural landscapes. Some of these belong to you and me!
In Florida, the Conservancy has a long history of working in cooperation with local, state and federal agencies to protect critical habitats. A small sampling of these sites, from the western Panhandle to the Florida Keys, is listed below. We hope they inspire you to explore and help protect our great outdoors.
Today the Conservancy not only protects and manages conservation lands, it also urges a permanent commitment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and supports policy initiatives such as America’s Great Outdoors – which is eyeing new wildlife refuge acquisitions in the Northern Everglades.
Blackwater River State Forest
Stately longleaf pines host an amazing 300 species of birds and 2,500 species of plants. With more than 200,000 acres, this may be Florida’s premier state forest. The “Canoe Capital of Florida” also offers superb camping and hiking. The Conservancy has purchased and transferred prime inholdings to the forest – including 15,000 acres from 2007 to 2009 alone – and helped create a significant wildlife corridor by connecting the forest to other conservation lands. We have also led a partnership that manages this forest, as well as more than 1 million other acres of longleaf pine habitat across the region, with goals such as habitat protection for the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Topsail Hill State Preserve
Some say it’s so named because one could stand on its 25-foot high dunes and see the topsail masts of ships coming over the horizon. A portion of this Gulf coastal property was secured at auction by the Conservancy on courthouse steps in the early 1990s after a savings & loan went belly-up (full disclosure: we’d been interested in Topsail Hill for years). The Conservancy then transferred it to the state in 1992. Now at 1,637 acres, the preserve is a small paradise with 3.2 miles of secluded white sand beaches. Rare plants are seen along 2.5 miles of hiking trails through habitats such as coastal scrub and mesic flatwoods. Estuarine habitats include two beautiful coastal dune lakes – an endemic community seen only along the Panhandle coast. There’s nothing else like this under conservation in Florida.
High above the Apalachicola River and sharing a boundary with the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve (ABRP), scenic Torreya State Park is popular for camping, hiking, picnicking, birding and its 1849 plantation home. The Conservancy protected almost 10,000 of the park’s acres through assists, purchases and transfers to the state, with an eye toward connecting it to ABRP. Building upon 25 years of research and experience in upland restoration at ABRP, the Conservancy is working with park staff to restore approximately 7,000 acres of the park’s longleaf pine habitat over the next 15 years. This work is believed to be critical to the long-term conservation of extremely rare steephead ravines and streams located in this remote area of the Panhandle.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
This 68,000-acre Gulf Coast refuge is Neotropical migratory bird paradise and also offers over-wintering habitat for large numbers of waterfowl. In 2003, the Conservancy bought and later transferred a 2,560-acre notch along the refuge’s northern boundary, helping create a more secure refuge. Replete with bears, this missing notch had allowed unauthorized hunters access deep into the interior. Visitors enjoy a variety of natural habitats and the historic St. Marks Lighthouse, plus boat ramps, nature trails, picnic areas and spectacular birding. Today the Conservancy owns an 8,069-acre neighboring tract that may eventually become part of the refuge, connecting it with public lands to the north and allowing upland migration of wildlife in the case of sea-level rise.
Peacock Springs State Park
When Peacock Springs was slated to be developed and surrounded by condos, Conservancy supporter Jean Henrickson introduced its owners to the Conservancy and helped us acquire grant money for its protection. The Conservancy purchased the initial tract in 1985 and transferred 240 acres to the state the next year. This popular Live Oak-area property features two major springs and six sinkholes, all in near-pristine condition, plus nature trails, swimming and picnicking. Here certified scuba divers may explore one of the longest underwater cave systems in the U.S.
The Theodore Roosevelt Area of this popular, Jacksonville-area preserve was once the home of William Henry Browne III. The recluse shared his 1-room cabin with his brother; its foundation still remains today. Willie thought that people “ought to have a place in the woods they can go to”. In 1969, the year before he died alone in his cabin, Browne donated approximately 10,000 acres to the Conservancy to preserve and asked that it be named for Roosevelt, his hero. The Conservancy later transferred the property to the National Park Service for public use. Today, hikers and leashed pets can experience miles of thickly wooded, peaceful nature trails – all because of Willie Browne’s generosity.
When the Conservancy purchased 55,466 acres running along 70 miles of Gulf coast in Dixie and Taylor Counties in the late 1980s, Florida Chapter membership was wildly enthusiastic. Now under the management of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the tracts buffer an incredible reach of intact, healthy seagrass beds, rivers, tidal creeks and salt marsh. There isn’t much beach; rather, this wilderness provides habitat for fish, birds such as ospreys and eagles, and is a summer home for the endangered Florida manatee. Dissected by few roads, it adjoins other protected lands to form a 200-mile natural area. The Big Bend is a favorite for hunting, fishing and paddling.
This 470-acre forest was the very first property purchased through Brevard County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) Program, which acquires and manages sensitive lands. The Conservancy purchased the property prior to the county program’s kickoff, later selling it to the county when bond funds were approved. Located -in Titusville, the sanctuary offers visitors several miles of hiking trails among five natural Florida habitats and is a vital resource for environmental education.
The Conservancy spearheaded a statewide grassroots campaign – from women’s clubs to boy scouts – to protect this manatee habitat located north of Tampa. We purchased and later transferred a 54-acre island tract at the headwaters of the Crystal River to establish the refuge in 1983. It’s unique in that it was created specifically to protect only one species, the endangered Florida manatee, which inhabits these relatively warm freshwater spring waters from December through March. Larger today but still accessible primarily by boat, the refuge is adjacent to the 31,000-acre Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, to which the Conservancy has also contributed.
Beautiful, ancient scrub habitat near Lake Pierce along the Lake Wales Ridge inspired the Conservancy to begin acquisition in the late 1980s. More than 1,200 acres of these initial tracts were sold to the state in 1991; the park has since grown to 8,000 acres. Named for a gifted ecologist who loved wild Florida but died tragically young, the park was made possible by a generous Broussard family donation to the Conservancy. The rustic preserve offers miles of hiking and equestrian trails. A pavilion and fishing sites are set among prehistoric sand dunes that are home to dozens of rare and endangered plants and wildlife such as Florida scrub-jays and bald eagles.
Considered “Real Florida” with incredibly abundant and rare wildlife, this park is one of our finest and most pristine natural areas. The Conservancy identified the property and negotiated it for the state in the late 1990s, protecting 38,284 acres of endemic dry prairie, wetlands and shady hammock habitats. Today the 54,000-acre state park, located northwest of the city of Okeechobee, offers excellent birding, sweeping vistas and more than 100 miles of off-road bicycling and equestrian trails. Hikers, primitive campers and other guests may enjoy a wintertime buggy tour. Feeding the Kissimmee River, the park’s numerous creeks and sloughs are important for the quality, quantity, supply and timing of freshwater flows in the Northern Everglades.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
An entire island located on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Florida Keys, this virgin tropical hardwood forest represents once-common habitat that has been mostly lost to development. In 1971, the Conservancy negotiated the park’s 551.5 acres on behalf of the state and contributed a portion of the purchase price. It was our first acquisition in the Keys, since followed by about 7,200 acres. A wealthy Miamian purchased this island in 1919; his caretaker house still sits atop an 18-foot hill, the highest natural elevation in the Keys. Accessible only by boat, the park offers tours of the house and grounds. Visitors will see the lignumvitae tree and migratory songbirds, but beware of mosquitoes in summer!