The Santa Fe Preserve Project is collaborating for the first time with Conserve with Us, a funding organization that launched six months ago, dedicated to conserving natural land.
“Natural land was disappearing,” said Ian Reinhart, co-founder of Conserve with Us. “We were like, ‘Wow, all this land was being developed and nobody’s doing anything about it.’”
Undeveloped land in the United States that equals the size of Manhattan is lost every three days to development, according to the Conserve with Us.
The Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) has spent more than a decade on the Santa Fe River Preserve project to protect and restore more of the river to ensure that it stays a complete and viable conservation corridor.
“It’s been sort of a slow process,” Tom Kay, Director of ACT, said.
Over half of the 75-mile river features conservation areas on either side.
The ACT has preserved about 920 acres of the Santa Fe River and is determined to expand the preserve to a goal of an additional 296 acres.
The ACT’s recent acquisition of land closed at the end of last year.
The acquisition took place on Nov. 18. Now, the ACT is currently working on its fifth acquisition to preserve even more of the Santa Fe River.
Some of this acquisition will be funded by the state of Florida, private foundations, and the community.
For the fourth transaction, ACT received contributions from local community businesses, such as Hogtown Brewers, who made an $8,000 contribution.
Hogtown Brewers donates proceeds to local charities from their annual craft beer festival. ACT was fortunate to be one of the recipients in early August.
The first transaction aimed at preserving an area of the river took place in 2011, which was done with some funding from a private foundation and some state funding from the Florida Communities Trust that added up to $1.44 million, Kay said.
The creators of Conserve with Us sent out an email last summer to help improve the way that land trusts connect and engage with the public and to help them raise funding in a way that’s beneficial for the work that they’re doing.
“We quickly realized that there are these wonderful nonprofit organizations called land trusts that were having a huge impact… and we hadn’t really known about them and all the great work that they’re doing,” Reinhart said.
ACT’s Santa Fe Preserve project is currently the second project in motion teaming up with Conserve with Us.
“We had this project that was up and going,” Kay explained. “We knew it was coming through. We knew it had some of the funding from the state, but not all… the funding. It was just a really good opportunity to collaborate.”
Currently, the project is 86 percent-funded. The fundraiser has one month left to reach its goal of $1.5 million.
Additionally, due to Hurricane Irma, the priority to conserve the river has increased.
“[The hurricane] highlighted the fact that there’s a real need from a flood protection standpoint, from a public safety standpoint, to protect as much of the river as possible,” Kay stated. “Urban development and even certain cultural practices… can be compromised by flooding.”
If the conservation project for the river is not able to go through, there will be significant threats to the river, according to Kay.
Jim Gross, Executive Director of the Florida Defenders of the Environment supports the trust’s efforts to conserve the river.
“We need conservation lands to protect the environment generally, but we also need them especially around rivers to protect rivers from contamination,” Gross said.
Cattle and livestock may increase nutrient loading and pollution through manure, which can cause erosion around creeks that are not fenced out properly. Increased development along the river is another potential threat, which can cause issues with the use of fertilizers as well.
“Especially when residential development comes in, the likelihood of invasive species coming into an area increases,” Kay said. “And the ability to use prescribed fire to restore and manage the fire-dependent parts of these lands becomes more difficult.”
Prescribed fire is a form of controlled burning to help renew plant life in certain ecosystems. It is often used to renew soil and kill diseases in trees and vegetation.
Gross mentioned that there was a recent problem with a chicken processing plant on the Santa Fe River, where the plant was discharging too much contamination into the river.
“It’s really important for us to select the kinds of activities that will be least damaging to our water resources,” Gross said. “And to implement measures to further minimize the risk of polluting our water resources.”
Kay mentioned that the ACT is not opposed to agriculture, but when areas that are right along the river are cleared for intensive agriculture it places strains on the river and its ecosystem.
“When the water quality and quantity do go, it can have severe impacts on the aquatic invertebrates like mollusks as well as the fish and amphibians that call the river home,” he said.
Locals and visitors can benefit greatly from the project, according to Kay.
Julie Wraithmell, Interim Executive Director of Audubon Florida (a conservation organization that protects natural habitats such as the Everglades), said the river has a habitat for migrating birds and larger animals that require large connected tracts of land.
Wraithmell thinks that the efforts of ACT in Alachua County are an inspiring model for local communities to preserve their natural character.
“North Central Florida is already such a destination for outdoor enthusiasts,” Wraithmell said. “Half the fun of outdoor recreation is exploration and discovery, which the Santa Fe has in spades.”
The conservation is working to promise numerous activities such as kayaking, hiking, fishing, canoeing and stargazing to be even more enjoyable.
“There’s a lot of people around there that obviously go out there for a reason. They love the river,” Kay said. “It’s one of the huge benefits of [it] being protected.”
Erin Adams has been camping at Ginnie Springs since she was a teenager. “Now I bring my daughter there,” she said. “We always tube in the river between the springs.”
Amy Creamer Brown and her husband, David Brown, own a piece of land on the river.
“Being landowners makes us have more concern for the Santa Fe River and what’s happening to it,” Brown said.
Brown and her husband have an ongoing routine of going to the river on the weekends for the past 20 years.
“I’m sort of being like an ambassador for [Conserve with Us],” Kay said with a smile. “There’s a lot of different platforms out there… but no one is geared specifically towards land trusts and acquisition projects.”