Field Trip for Florida Legislators
On Thursday, January 4, 2018, 26 nature enthusiasts braved chilly temperatures and turned out for a fieldtrip of Heart Island Conservation Area in Volusia County to show their support for increased funding of Florida Forever and other conservation programs. The fieldtrip, sponsored by the Pawpaw chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, also included members of local Audubon Society and Sierra Club chapters and faculty of Stetson University. State House Representative Patrick Henry (District 26) and District Secretary Gina Wells joined to learn more about conservation and the interests of their local constituents.
Despite overwhelming voter support for the Land and Water Florida Water and Land Conservation constitutional amendment in 2014, funding has dropped annually, with zero dollars appropriated by the Florida Legislature in 2017. Until last year, over 2.5 million acres of Florida conservation lands were acquired through Florida Forever and its precursor programs, with historic funding levels exceeding 300 million per year.
The fieldtrip showcased the former Heart Island Conservation Area citrus lands which are being restored to longleaf pine sandhill habitat that provides habitat for dozens of imperiled sandhill species. The land was purchased ten years ago with funding from Volusia Forever and Florida Forever programs, and is part of a larger conservation project to protect longleaf pine forests throughout North and Central Florida. Today the conservation area features trails for hiking and horseback riding, as well as outdoor laboratories for education and ecological research. Undeveloped lands adjacent to Heart Island CA are on the list of approved Florida Forever projects as part of the Longleaf Pine Deland Ridge project, meaning these properties can be purchased from willing sellers if the Florida Forever program is adequately funded.
The Pawpaw chapter invited State lawmakers representing Volusia and neighboring counties for the purpose of learning about existing local conservation areas and potential conservation lands that are approved for acquisition under the Florida Forever program. As the sole lawmaker attending the fieldtrip, Representative Henry expressed his support for increased State conservation funding in 2018.
Cynthia Bennington, professor of Biology at Stetson University in Deland, lead the group through longleaf pine sandhills and restoration areas as she explained the importance of these habitats for native plants and animals and natural resource protection. Doug Weaver, former Volusia Forever Land Acquisition Director, described the State and local partnership process that led to acquisition of the Heart Island property, and how public lands can be protected through a variety of conservation programs and tools. Other field trip participants pointed out how intact and restored longleaf pine sandhills provide numerous and underappreciated ecosystem services for regional communities, including clean water for drinking water supplies and floodwater abatement.
Sonya Guidry, representative of the Pawpaw chapter, noted Representative Henry’s interest and support: “We very much appreciate Representative Henry and Ms. Wells’ participation in this event, and their interest in learning more about local conservation lands.” Ms. Guidry remarked that the large turnout, especially on an icy day, underscored the enthusiastic support for conservation funding among local constituents. “Florida Forever funding is an extremely important issue for the FNPS Pawpaw chapter and other constituents in our area. We urge our State lawmakers to seriously consider funding Florida Forever for acquisition of conservation lands similar to this one – sooner rather than later. The real native Florida cannot be reinvented after it is lost.”
Representative Patrick Henry (left) and District Secretary Gina Wells (right).
Field trip participants viewing the sandhill restoration area at Heart Island Conservation Area
Mr. Daniel Young explains aspects of a healthy Longleaf pine ecosystem. From left to right: Sande Habali, Danny Young, Cynthia Bennington, and Dr. Susan Carr.