The Florida Cabinet voted Tuesday to approve a $2.8 million conservation easement on Wetland Preserve in Putnam County.
The 3,562 acres of land is owned by Ben and Louann Williams. The easement is funded through Florida Forever, the state’s conservation and recreation land-acquisition program.
The North Florida Land Trust, a nonprofit that aims to protect land of ecological, agricultural, and historic significance to North Florida, sees the property as a critical link in the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor, a 1.6 million acre stretch of public and private lands that connect the Ocala National Forest in Central Florida and Osceola National Forest in North Florida.
“Today is a big day for the Williams family and for land conservation,” said Jim McCarthy, president of the Land Trust. “Marc Hudson, our land protection director, has worked tirelessly for more than five years to help the Williams achieve their goal of preserving this land. With this funding in place from Florida Forever, this critical piece of property will remain free from development in perpetuity.”
The nonprofit has served as a landowner advocate on behalf of the Williams family.
Wetlands Preserve is a diverse area bordering Rice Creek that includes forests, flatwoods, sandhill, and swamps. And even before the easement, the landowners were dedicated to its conservation by planting longleaf pine and performing prescribed burns to restore wildlife habitat. They also offer river excursions, allow hikers to cross the land, and invite biologists and students to study and help conserve species like gopher tortoises and rusty red salamanders.
The Williams also have their hands in various other conservation efforts and are founding members of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocate and watchdog organization for the St. Johns River. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently named Ben and Louann Williams the Florida Landowners of the Year.
“The FWC commends the outstanding commitment of private landowners Ben and Louann Williams to conserving Florida’s wildlife,” said Jennifer Goff, who heads the FWC’s Office of Conservation Planning Services. “The Williams are great examples of Floridians who combine protecting our native species and habitats with working their land and inviting others to experience it.”
The O2O corridor provides an important habitat for the Florida Black Bear as well as several endangered species, such as gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and the red-cockaded woodpecker. As part of the new agreement, 160 acres of usable timberland at Wetland Preserve will be specifically used for gopher tortoise habitat.
The Wetland Preserve also falls within the Etoniah/Cross Florida Greenway Florida Forever project, the southernmost landscape-connecting unit in the O2O corridor.
The Etoniah/Cross Florida Greenway was approved in June and is ranked number 11 in Florida’s critical natural lands project category. It’s home to 92,180 acres of land that have been identified for conservation in central Putnam County extending to the Ocklawaha River.