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Recently, a citizen spotted what he described as “a dozen coyotes” leaping out of the woods near Melissa Park in Lake Helen. He called Vernon Burton, a former Lake Helen city commissioner and a current candidate for the job of mayor in the small town.

“I went out there just to look around,” Burton said. As he stood in the park, the sound of an emergency vehicle’s siren wailed. “The woods just came alive with the sound of howls.”

Burton explained that a large swath of land between Melissa Park and Interstate 4 was once an old orange grove intended to be developed. The development fell through, and the groves have sat idle for years, providing a place for coyotes, but a constricted one.

To the south, Deltona housing has crept up to near the old grove. To the north, the Woods of Lake Helen, a shovel-ready development that was started right before the Great Recession, has seen scores of new homes built during the past five years. 

“They have nowhere to go,” Burton said of the animals.

As cities build out from their cores, annexing land and developing in odd parcels here and there, situations such as the one Burton described sometimes occur. 

But in the big picture, mechanisms begun 30 years ago aim to prevent growth from sprawling and cornering wildlife, and to protect what ecologists refer to as the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

And, a recent appropriation by the Florida Legislature could help ensure the corridor remains a protected reality.

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The Florida Ecological Greenways Network, also known as the Florida Wildlife Corridor, is a plan that connects conservation areas with lands referred to as critical linkages. 

The corridor — which splits in South Florida into two distinct paths running up the east and west sides of the state, is traversed by wide-ranging wildlife, like the black bear. 

The eastern arm of the corridor travels directly through Volusia County, in what is referred to as the Volusia Conservation Corridor (or Volusia Wildlife Corridor). Land was identified and targeted for acquisition by the county for the purposes of conservation. 

The collection of conservation lands would then provide wildlife routes through the county and around cities — and also prevent East and West Volusia from sprawling toward each other.

Longtime environmentalist and politician Clay Henderson explained.

“Some time ago, folks in the county recognized that the center part of the county was very important to have conservation associated with it — because it’s an important watershed and bear habitat,” Henderson said. “It is a growth-management measure to restrict urban sprawl.”

For years, Volusia County voters have given the thumbs-up to the project with overwhelming support of the Volusia Forever program. The program, launched in 2000 and renewed by voters in 2020, allots money to purchase land. So far, 38,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land have been protected by the measure.

But more remains.

“It seems to me there’s about 18,000 acres remaining to be acquired within the acquisition map,” Henderson said.

This year, there is a unique opportunity for Volusia County to protect some of these remaining lands, Henderson said.

“The Legislature this year appropriated $300 million toward purchases within the corridor statewide,” Henderson said. “The $300 million appropriation is a one-year deal. So whoever gets their act together, quickly, gets it funded.”

In both the state and county plans, land doesn’t need to be bought outright, Henderson explained.

“The plans recognize that all of this doesn’t need to be bought — that a lot of this land can be protected through purchase of conservation easements instead,” Henderson said. “The landowner can basically be able to sell off development rights to get out of that development pressure, but still hold on to the land. That’s a big incentive.” 

For instance, landowners could still run a sustainable forestry business on their own land, but development rights would be severed. The land would be for sustainable forestry in perpetuity. 

Since the boundaries of the land targeted for acquisition were made 20 years ago, one element of Volusia Forever this year is identifying other lands that could meet the criteria to be acquired.

Right now, the program is accepting nominations for such properties. Nominations will be accepted until Nov. 15. 

The time to act is now, Henderson said.

“The state money is there. Volusia now has or soon will have money to match against that, which is the one-time opportunity. So, Volusia is in a great spot to be able to pull this together,” Henderson said.

For more information, visit https://www.volusia.org/services/community-services/resource-stewardship/volusia-forever.stml

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