For many decades, the State of Florida has been purchasing properties necessary to create an unbroken corridor of wilderness connecting Wekiva Springs State Park to the vast acreage within the Ocala National Forest through programs such as C.A.R.L., Preservation 2000, and Florida Forever. Since 1980, the state has acquired nearly 56,000 acres at a cost in excess of $183 million for the Wekiva-Ocala corridor, and more than 25,000 acres are additionally being sought. Acquisition of the land is necessary to provide a wildlife movement corridor and important refuge and habitat for many rare species such as the Florida black bear, the bald eagle, Florida scrub jays, swallow-tailed kites, Florida scrub jays, sandhill cranes, Eastern indigo snakes, Sherman’s fox squirrels, Florida scrub lizards, and gopher tortoises. Another priority is to keep development away from these lands where rain seeps underground to the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of water for the Wekiva river and dozens of other springs in the area.
FOWR has recently been engaged in efforts to secure funding for acquisition of, and a conservation easement over, several hundred acres located within some of the fragmented parcels still being sought by the state for acquisition in the Wekiva-Ocala corridor. In connection with these efforts, FOWR has learned of a federal grant allocated to the state for a Highlands County scrub jay project where alternative funding has instead been received. FOWR has asked the state to consider allocating the funds to acquire property and establish a conservation easement over two parcels consisting of approximately 200 acres of land in Lake County. Florida scrub jays can be found on one of the parcels, and both scrub jays and Eastern indigo snakes have been documented in the scrub communities on the parcel proposed to be placed under conservation easement.
Several state agencies are involved in the process of reviewing and approving FOWR’s request either because they have a role in allocation of the funds or a role in long-term management of the properties. If re-allocation of the federal grant monies is approved, FOWR will have one year to secure additional funds in order to qualify for receipt of the monies from the federal government. The Conservation Trust for Florida has advised it is willing to assist FOWR with securing preliminary appraisals and the necessary fund-raising efforts. A representative from Florida Fish and Wildlife Service has signed off on FOWR’s request and FOWR is now waiting for permission from the remaining state agencies involved.