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The Villages
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Florida officials take steps to protect 28,000 acres of land and fragile habitat

This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet have made an important investment to protect nearly 28,000 acres of Florida’s natural lands and link existing conservation areas.

It marks the first acquisition within the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Corridor, an important Everglades and panther habitat.

“Florida continues to lead the way in land conservation and protecting our natural resources,” said DeSantis. “These protections will further protect our natural lands for Florida’s families to enjoy for generations to come.”

His administration has brought renewed attention to land conservation and the importance of protecting imperiled species, landscape connectivity, water resources, working lands, and coastal resources. Since 2019, the Florida Legislature has committed more than $1.25 billion to the Florida Forever Program, including $100 million in recurring annual funding. This consistent funding has enabled the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to acquire over 220,000 acres for conservation, 90 percent of which are within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The acquisition of 25,039 acres within the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Corridor in Collier and Hendry counties will further connect the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve to the Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area, Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Wildlife and Environmental Area. Protection of these ecologically critical habitats and agricultural lands will prevent habitat fragmentation for a wide range of imperiled species, including the Florida panther. This property is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The acquisition of 1,361 acres within the Yarborough Ranch Florida Forever Project in Seminole County will protect the Econlockhatchee River and Geneva Freshwater Lens, which provides drinking water for county residents. This property is surrounded by existing conservation land, thereby providing a critical linkage for a variety of imperiled species, including the Florida black bear. It will be managed by the Florida Forest Service as part of the Little Big Econ State Forest. This property is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and, when it is acquired, this Florida Forever project will be complete.

The acquisition of 1,342 acres within the Lake Hatchineha Watershed Florida Forever Project in Polk County will expand public recreational opportunities and fill an important gap in the landscape between other state-owned conservation lands near Lake Hatchineha. This property is under direct threat of development and recently received local approvals to construct over 1,800 single-family homes as well as commercial development, but instead it will be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a Wildlife Management Area. This property is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The governor and the Cabinet also approved the acquisition of permanent agricultural land conservation easements over more than 8,000 acres of working agricultural lands through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, including more than 3,000 acres within the Heart Bar Ranch, a working cattle ranch since 1847, two years after Florida achieved statehood, which is now operated by 5th and 6th generation family farmers.

In addition to these land acquisition approvals, the governor and the Cabinet also approved the Florida Forever Priority List and the Annual Florida Forever Work Plan for Fiscal Year 2024–25, which guide the annual expenditure of the Florida Forever funding. The Florida Forever Priority List includes 128 projects containing more than 2.1 million acres. Ninety-nine of these projects are within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

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