Florida Forever is the state’s premier land conservation program, acquiring parks and preserves to provide recreational opportunities, habitat for imperiled wildlife, and other benefits like water recharge and carbon sequestration. A successor to previous programs like Save Our Rivers and Preservation 2000, Florida Forever is the continuation of a decades long effort that has ensured 10 million conservation acres are under state protection.
As Florida’s population continues to grow, protecting vulnerable resources is more important now than ever. For wildlife, people, working lands, conservation corridors, and more, forests and wetlands are valuable investments in our efforts to protect and restore Florida’s water quality and watersheds. To ensure the most strategic parcels are acquired, the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC) evaluates and prioritizes projects from willing sellers each year, and ranks them based on ecological criteria. The program uses conservation easements — purchasing just the development rights from a property — as well as full acquisition to accomplish its goals and stretch dollars further.
In recent years, despite resounding support from voters of 2014’s Amendment 1, Florida Forever appropriations from the Legislature have been hard-won and modest. In addition to ensuring the program has funding, however, it is also important that Audubon is engaged in the process by which acquisitions are selected, and then managed for ecological health.
Featured Project: Northeast Florida Blueway
The Northeast Florida Blueway project — encompassing Duval, Clay, and St. John’s Counties — remains a critical priority project on the Florida Forever list. The intent of this 27,000-acre project is to preserve the wetlands and marshes along both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway, and along the shores of the Tolomato and Matanzas rivers and several tributaries, from the Duval County line south to the Flagler County line.
Once complete, the project will connect existing natural areas to form a conservation corridor along the north-south waterway, providing important habitat for wildlife including the Florida black bear, manatee, and Roseate Spoonbill among many others. The area contains 17 types of natural communities supporting at least 70 species listed on the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. The project would also provide landscape-level protection of a prized coastal ecosystem. The nearby communities of Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra, and St. Augustine are quickly approaching build-out, as Jacksonville is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau report, Jacksonville ranked seventh in the nation for population growth last year while already earning the distinction of “largest city in Florida.”
This accelerated growth has reduced natural lands in Duval and the surrounding counties to a fraction of their original extent. Programs such as Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection Programs steer growth away from important habitat for birds and wildlife to maintain the quality and natural functions of the water and wetland systems.
Fish Island Acquisition Approved
Fish Island is a long, forested island situated between the Matanzas River and the developed areas of Anastasia Island. The property includes over one-half mile of shoreline along the salt marshes of the Matanzas River, supporting a coastal forest system that acts as home base for a busy Bald Eagle nest. Preserving this property will retain the marsh’s many benefits, including keeping this area resilient and bringing us closer to completing the Northeast Florida Blueway project.
Audubon Florida staff member Chris Farrell and St. Johns County Audubon worked with local supporters to highlight the water quality benefits of this project utilizing fi nancial assistance from a “Water Quality Advocate” grant secured from the National Audubon Society. Conservation of the Fish Island property will prevent degradation of the unique salt marsh habitat and help maintain a healthy Matanzas River. On July 23, Audubon’s Director of Policy Beth Alvi joined supporters from Northeast Florida before the governor and Cabinet to support the acquisition, which was confi rmed unanimously!
See more stories from the 2019 Fall Edition of the Naturalist here.