But we have at least 17,000 acres still to go
BY CLAY HENDERSON
Mallory Dimmitt’s recent op/ed celebrates the first anniversary of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which has reinvigorated land conservation in Florida. The Wildlife Corridor Foundation is to be applauded for their efforts to paint a vision for conservation in our fast-growing state.
Locally, we can celebrate that we have been diligently working to protect the “wild heart of Volusia” for 50 years.
In 1972, Florida voters approved a $200 million bond issue to purchase environmentally endangered lands. One of the first purchases under this program was 20,000 acres that became Tiger Bay State Forest, which marked the start of long-term acquisition in the center of the county.
In 1986, Volusia voters approved a first-in-the-nation bond issue to acquire environmentally endangered lands. The following year, we hosted a statewide conference to tout the importance of local conservation efforts. One of the speakers that day was Dr. Larry Harris, who urged us to define and protect wildlife corridors throughout the state. We took his advice and protected large swaths of interconnected lands.
Volusia voters stepped up again in 2000, with the approval of Volusia Forever. The primary focus was protection of the wild lands at the center of the county.
The following year, County Council Member Pat Northey and Reid Hughes of the St. Johns River Water Management District sponsored the Volusia Conservation Corridor to acquire 79,000 acres through the middle of Volusia County.
To date, more than 60,000 acres have been acquired through partnerships between Volusia Forever, Florida Forever and the St. Johns River Water Management District. An additional 40,000 acres within the corridor have been protected through conservation easements with private owners. This has been an unqualified success.
In 2020, Volusia voters reauthorized Volusia Forever for another 20 years, and we rose to become one of the very few counties in our nation to approve a third bond issue to acquire conservation lands.
The completion of the Volusia Conservation Corridor remains the priority, as 17,000 essential acres still need to be protected.
With 1,000 people a day moving to Florida, we know time is not on our side. On the other hand, the Florida Legislature appropriated $600 million over the past two years to acquire lands within the statewide corridor.
Matching funds from Volusia Forever place us in a great position to acquire these important areas to protect wetlands, our water supplies and wildlife habitat, and to serve as a buffer against urban sprawl.
We are very appreciative of the Florida Wildlife Corridor team for painting a picture of conservation. In 2012, photographer Carlton Ward, biologist Joe Guthrie and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus trekked from the Florida Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp to demonstrate that the conservation connections still exist.
They were the first people known to traverse Volusia County through our protected conservation lands. I was pleased to join them for about 20 miles of that journey and see firsthand that these connections are important to wildlife.
Volusians can be proud that we have protected roughly 36 percent of our land for conservation. It’s an amazing success story, but we can’t rest on our laurels. Ecologists tell us we need to conserve between 40 percent and 50 percent of our lands to protect wildlife and water resources.
We still have some work to do, but if we stay focused on the goal, it will be a legacy for generations to come.
— Henderson retired as director of Stetson’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, and before that was president of Florida Audubon Society and served two terms on the Volusia County Council. His upcoming book, Forces of Nature (University Press of Florida), is a history of land conservation in Florida.