– North Florida Land Trust and Weyerhaeuser are working together on the possible sale of a conservation easement on 50,000 acres of timberland in north Florida. The land stretches from the Raiford Wildlife Management Area to the Osceola National Forest, within the Ocala to Osceola, or O2O, Wildlife Corridor. The 16-mile parcel extends across parts of Baker and Union County and is almost half of the total land needed to complete the critical O2O Wildlife Corridor, a conservation priority for NFLT.
“It is very rare for a timber company to consider selling a conservation easement, so we give all credit to Weyerhaeuser for being willing to do something outside of the box and, ultimately, very important to conservation,” said Jim McCarthy, president of NFLT.
NFLT is the managing partner of the O2O Wildlife Corridor partnership, composed of 17 federal and state agencies and nonprofits, all focused on bringing the vision of the O2O corridor to reality. The O2O provides important habitat for numerous endangered species. NFLT has agreed to serve as a facilitator for Weyerhaeuser, the largest private timberland company in the United States, to help identify funding to purchase the conservation easement.
“This is an unparalleled opportunity to conserve land on a grand scale, and finding someone willing to put up so much land for protection at once is almost unheard of,” said McCarthy. “The vision of the O2O Wildlife Corridor, and therefore the whole Florida Wildlife Corridor, is literally not achievable without conserving this land. Weyerhaeuser reached out to us about the potential sale of the conservation easement, which will be the largest our organization has ever undertaken.”
The Weyerhaeuser land is tens of thousands of acres comprised of managed timberland, native wetland and floodplain swamps. It also has two large lakes and significant portions of the headwaters and tributaries to the Sante Fe and St. Marys rivers. The land within the critical wildlife corridor provides important habitat for the Florida black bear and numerous endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake and gopher tortoise. Preserving this land will allow wildlife to migrate and maintain populations as they are pushed out of developing areas.
Weyerhaeuser would like to acknowledge and recognize the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service for their assistance in helping to identify the conservation easement corridor across its lands to be considered for inclusion within the O2O Wildlife Corridor.
The purchase of a conservation easement will allow Weyerhaeuser to retain ownership of the land and continue to manage it for timber while ensuring it will never be developed, even in the case of a sale of the land to another company or person. There will also be protections within the conservation easement that will restrict certain management practices.
NFLT will be working to identify funding that could come from state or federal funding sources, like the Florida Forever program, which is the state’s premier conservation land-buying program. The majority of the Weyerhaeuser property is located within the state’s Raiford Florida Forever Area. The cost of the conservation easement has not yet been determined.
Funding for Florida Forever is being debated in the Florida Legislature, with the Florida Senate proposing $125 million and the Florida House recommending $20 million for the program. The funding available will determine if the easement can be bought outright, or if the project will need to be completed in phases.