Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet Tuesday voted to spend $2.54 million to buy land in Hamilton and Lake counties as part of the Florida Forever conservation program, the state's leading conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.
The 83.4-acre property acquired in Lake County includes five continuous lakefront properties as part of the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway Florida Forever project. The parcels, which line Lake Norris, are worth a total $540,000.
The corridor is rich with diverse habitats, including forested pinelands and floodplain that are home to the largest black bear population in the state.
Lindsey Stevens, the land program manager for Florida’s Nature Conservancy, said since the greenway is in a “rapidly urbanizing” part of the state, the smaller parcel of land is important to conserve. She pointed out the crystal-blue water of the springs, which she said are crucial to preserve.
“It’s an important piece to build this green connection,” she said. “As the land goes, so does the water. We have to strategically protect the land to ensure that our springs are something that our children can enjoy and future generations can enjoy.”
In Hamilton County, the 316 acres “Hardee Spring property” include parcels along the Withlacoochee River. The $2 million property is near the Twin Rivers State Forest.
Julie Wraithmell, director of Audubon Society, said without protecting vulnerable places such as these, Florida “wouldn’t be able to function.”
“These projects will protect a clear spring that stands out like a sapphire,” she said. “By protecting these places, its not just an investment, but it’s important to the health of the larger watershed.”
Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States, managing over 10 million acres of preserved land. Under the program and its predecessor, P2000, more than 2.5 million acres were purchased.
Both of the projects approved Tuesday show “increasing value of our current green infrastructure,” Department of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein told the cabinet.