January 09, 2020

 – North Florida Land Trust has assisted in fulfilling the dream of landowners in Putnam County by facilitating the purchase of a conservation easement on Wetland Preserve with funds from the Florida Forever program. The Florida Cabinet approved the funding in September to purchase the conservation easement for $2,873,000 and the deal was officially completed late Wednesday when the Division of State Lands closed on the easement.. NFLT served as a landowner advocate for Ben and Louann Williams to help them achieve their goal of preserving their 3,562 acres in perpetuity.

“This has been a long time coming for our staff, particularly Marc Hudson, our land protection director, who has been working with Ben and Louann for the last five years to help them make sure the land will stay natural forever,” said Jim McCarthy, president of NFLT. “While the Williams use their land as a working forest and educate others about its ecosystem benefits, they wanted to make sure the land remained free from development for future generations. We had a few options over the years but none of them panned out. We are grateful to the Florida Cabinet and the Division of State Lands at the Department of Environmental Protection for realizing the need to make sure this land remains a preserve.”

Wetland Preserve is a critical link in the Ocala to Osceola (O2O) wildlife corridor and is located within the Etoniah/Cross Florida Greenway Florida Forever project. NFLT identified it as a preservation priority property in 2015 and in 2017 helped move it to the top of the list for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program before it was defunded. NFLT then identified the Florida Forever Program as a funding option for the conservation easement and assisted the family through the process while helping the state understand the property and execute the due diligence.

The Williams manage and use the land as a working forest and also educate others about its ecological assets. The conservation easement will allow them to continue to own the land while ensuring it will never be developed. The land is mesic flatwoods, mature creek swamps and a smaller area of dry sandhills. It produces fiber and wood and also serves wildlife, protects water resources and benefits native plants. The Williams, who were named Florida Landowners of the Year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are also permanently preserving the right for the Florida National Scenic Trail to use its current trail across their land.

The Etoniah/Cross Florida Greenway Florida Forever project contains 952,180 acres of land identified for conservation in central Putnam County extending to the Ocklawaha River. The project was approved in June and is ranked number 11 in the critical natural lands project category for the state. The conservation easement on Wetland Preserve moves the project closer to completion.

The land within the O2O corridor is a preservation focus for NFLT. The corridor provides an important habitat for the Florida Black Bear and numerous endangered species including the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snakes and gopher tortoises. As part of this agreement, 160 acres of usable timber land at Wetland Preserve will now be used specifically for gopher tortoise habitat.