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State purchases additional Lake Wimico acreage

Tim Croft
The Star

The preservation of Lake Wimico and surrounding lands expanded last week.

The Florida Cabinet approved spending $520,000 in Florida Forever funds to purchase nearly 600 acres within the St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever project.

The land is near the Howard Creek community and one mile west of the Apalachicola River.

At its southeastern boundary, it is adjacent to what is known as the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environment Area (ARWEA), separated from it by Dump Road.

According to information from the Cabinet agenda package, purchasing the property would expand on the February addition of the Lake Wimico site to the ARWEA.

“The subject property lies within the Apalachicola River and Bay Watershed,” according to Cabinet staff remarks provided within last week’s agenda. “This area is one of the most undeveloped, diverse, productive and economically important natural systems in the Southeastern United States.”

The St. Joe Timberland project was created in 2000 to “consolidate” St. Joe Company ownerships in other projects into one major project, “thus helping to preserve large undeveloped tracts of land for native plants and animals and giving the public an opportunity to experience large natural areas throughout North Florida.”

The St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever project includes 158,589 acres, more than half of which have been acquired or are under contract for acquisition.

The project is ranked No. 4 in the Florida Department of Protection’s Climate Change Lands project, containing natural communities from “scrub to swamps to springs.”

“If acquired, the subject property would provide a largely intact area of mesic flatwoods, an important habitat for many wildlife species, reduce the likelihood of future management challenges … and protect the critical water and economic resources afforded by this natural system,” Cabinet staff detailed.

The Cabinet decision, staff noted, followed and expanded upon the February purchase of more than 20,000 acres surrounding Lake Wimico by The Nature Conservancy using fine dollars from the BP oil spill.

The TNC, which called the purchase “the largest conservation win of its kind in over a decade”, donated the land to the state and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

That land was purchased from a division of Deseret Cattle and Timber, which had purchased the land from the St. Joe Company.

That land is adjacent to the (ARWEA) to the east and borders the Box-R-Wildlife Management to the south.

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 a TNC 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.

The lake’s water flow into Apalachicola Bay is critical to nurseries of migrating fish and oyster populations, the TNC noted earlier this year.

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, according to TNC.

Last week’s Cabinet approval was among a series of projects encompassing the purchase of 32,000 acres under Florida Forever.

Among the seven purchases approved under the Florida Forever program, three were in Northwest Florida counties, including Walton, Franklin and Wakulla.

“Whether these are coastal buffers protecting a healthy Gulf of Mexico or habitat for imperiled wildlife in Florida’s heartland, protected lands like these are an investment in Florida’s prosperity,” said Beth Alvi, Director of Policy for Audubon Florida.

“The Legislature appropriated funding to Florida Forever, and this is the Department of Environmental Protection delivering on the will of Florida’s public.

They saw important opportunities to protect these places and negotiated savvy deals for the taxpayer.”

Since 2001, more than 800,000 acres have been protected through the Florida Forever program.