At a time when the watershed that includes Apalachicola and St. Joseph bays and Lake Wimico is rising on the radar for state and federal officials, The Nature Conservancy announced a significant purchase last week.

In fact, The Nature Conservancy called it “the largest conservation win of its kind in over a decade.”

With the benefit of fine dollars from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund and stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, TNC acquired more than 20,000 acres of land surrounding Lake Wimico.

Once purchased, the TNC donated the land to the state and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The land was purchased from the Lake Wimico Land Company, LLC, a subsidiary of AgReserves, Inc., a division of Deseret Cattle and Timber Company, which had acquired the land several years ago from The St. Joe Company.

“As farmers and ranchers, we work with natural systems every day, so we take a long-term view in everything we do,” said Don Sleight, AgReserves CEO in a statement. “To work with The Nature Conservancy and their partners to see that this property will be preserved for future generations to enjoy is gratifying for us.”

The land is located adjacent to the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area (ARWEA) to the east and borders the Box-R-Wildlife Management to the south.

Management and restoration efforts in those areas will expand to include the newly purchased acreage “to restore natural communities to their historic condition,” according to a press release.

That will result in the preservation of over 1 million acres that is one of the most diverse and important natural protected areas along the Gulf Coast, according to the release.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization and in the release the organization indicated, “This purchase will protect a crucial and biodiverse piece of land … that surrounds a 4,000-acre lake” for which the parcel is named.

“The protection of Lake Wimico has been a goal for TNC and its partner organizations for many years and represents an immensely important conservation win,” said Temperince Morgan, Executive Director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.

“The area is an ecological gem; truly reflective of Florida’s wild and iconic places. We can now ensure the protection of this vast and essential freshwater habitat that helps safeguard the best possible future for the region.”

As with the St. Joseph State Buffer Preserve, set aside as protection of the Aquatic Preserve that is St. Joseph Bay, the purchase of conservation lands around significant water bodies helps preserve and protect critical habitat.

The protected lands create a refuge for native and migratory wildlife, including a number of federally- and state-listed species.

For example, the Buffer preserve is home to several critically-endangered and rare species of flora and fauna.

The release noted that the freshwater wetland habitat of Lake Wimico has been identified repeatedly over the past 50 years as an area of critical significances for preservation.

Protecting Lake Wimico helps preserve and protect the water quality of the Apalachicola River, Apalachicola Bay and Gulf of Mexico, according to the release.

It also creates a protected refuge for resident and migratory wildlife, including many federally and state listed imperiled species.

The lake and its surrounding lands and waters are home to the Florida black bear, manatee, bald eagle, osprey, swallow-tailed kite, many species of wading and shore birds, and turtles.

Its water flow into Apalachicola Bay is critical to nurseries of migrating fish and oyster populations, the release continued.

Additionally, the conservation of the cypress-dominated swamps, marshes and water flow help ensure a resilient landscape that provides adaptation to impacts of climate change and sea level rise, and habitat for ecological communities.

The land has long been a parcel identified in the Florida Forever Program, the state’s mechanism for the purchase of sensitive lands for conservation and protection.

It is also part of a recognized Northwest Florida Greenway, a joint effort between state agencies and the Department of Defense (DOD), to establish a conservation, wildlife, and military fly-over corridor, through a portion of the Florida panhandle.

The purchase arrives as momentum has been building among state and federal officials to address what some environmental groups insist is a system in peril.

There are several projects examining aspects of the Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, one funded with a Triumph Gulf Coast grant through Florida State University.

The local non-profit Baysavers is dedicated to returning the watershed, altered in the 1930s by the building of the Gulf County Canal, to its former health.

The 20,161-acre purchase of the Lake Wimico land, now protected in perpetuity, was a result of efforts of TNC and partners, the FDEP, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

“The acquisition and management of the Lake Wimico parcel represents a crucial investment in the ongoing efforts to restore hydrology and improve habitats in the lower Apalachicola River watershed and Apalachicola Bay,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “Our ongoing partnerships … are key to advancing on-the-ground conservation investments that will have lasting benefits for fish, wildlife, and people.”