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-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Land trust locks up 522 acres in environmental corridor, federal money to protect more
A Jacksonville nonprofit has landed a chunk of property inside a huge corridor targeted for conservation — and up to $3.6 million in federal money to help protect the rest.
The nonprofit said this year it would focus more on preserving land in the 1.6 million-acre corridor, considered critically important for efforts to maintain habitat for longleaf pines and gopher tortoises.
The corridor is also valuable as territory for the Florida black bear and the federally protected red cockaded woodpecker and indigo snake.
“We’re ecstatic over getting this,” the trust’s president, Jim McCarthy, said about funding that was approved from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to build regional conservation partnerships.
He said the USDA’s decision isn’t a straightforward grant, but makes the money accessible for deals inside the corridor to buy either land or conservation easements, in which a property owner gives up development rights in return for cash.
McCarthy said he expects the money may be used mostly for easements, which can be offered to farmers, ranchers and other people who maintain open land but feel financial pressure to develop their property as homes or commercial real estate.
The money is supposed to be used by a partnership that also includes the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Forest Service, National Guard the nonprofit Alachua Conservation Trust and Florida Wildlife Corridor. They’re supposed to consult jointly before using the funding.
The money is available for the next five years, but there’s more land in the corridor than anyone will be able to protect in that time.
While it includes the National Guard’s 80,000-acre Camp Blanding and two national forests, the corridor also has 660,000 acres of private property — more than 1,000 square miles.
The donation the trust announced Thursday was an example of private land in the corridor that conservationists could end up managing free. The land, about two miles south of the Georgia border between U.S. 441 and the Osceola forest’s western edge, is environmentally important but can’t be reached without crossing national forest property or private land.
The property has wetlands covered by swamp and scrubby plants, and is next to a national forest project to decrease wildfire risks and restore the ecosystem found in now-rare longleaf pine forests. McCarthy said he expects the trust will work closely with forest service managers on maintaining the donated property.
The trust took over another longleaf pine area in the O2O Corridor in October, when it became the owner of 415 acres near Camp Blanding in Clay County by using Defense Department money meant to prevent development that might hurt military readiness. The trust announced plans then to work on restoring longleaf growth in that area.
A third parcel in the corridor was bought late last year in Bradford County, when grants from a National Guard agency and a state task force on defense support were pooled to pay for 624 acres near Camp Blanding that that a Missouri state workers’ retirement fund was selling.
Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263