A 195-acre nature preserve in Columbia County will open to the public in 2022

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Before a volunteer crew joined forces Saturday morning to clean up a plot of land dubbed “Little Awesome Preserve,” it was littered with metal cans, car parts, vintage coke bottles and a deer skull.

Fourteen people, including families, UF students, former faculty and Alachua County residents concerned with local conservation efforts gathered near a small fence opening along County Road 138 about 40 minutes from downtown Gainesville.

The volunteers worked together from 9 a.m. to noon to clean up debris from the 195-acre  preserve, which will soon be opened to the public. The land was bought in July after out-bidding a real estate development group based out of Jacksonville.

Alachua Conservation Trust officials were made aware of the land sale about a week before it went up for auction through newspaper advertisements and calls from concerned citizens wanting to see it protected, according to Heather Obara, the associate director for the Alachua Conservation Trust.

“Normally when that happens you usually can’t move fast enough to get the money that you need to do it,” Obara said. “But this piece of property was so stunning we had to figure it out. It’s such an important piece of protecting this river and the features that are on it are so important that we had to do something. We just couldn’t let it go.”

The cleanup event, which was hosted by the Alachua Conservation Trust, was an opportunity to comb through and collect trash that was left after the land was used as dumping grounds and a hunting space as well as get people to see the preserve before it is officially unveiled to the general public, Obara said.

“That gets people excited, they’ve never been on the property before so this is a chance to see it before anybody else gets to see it,” Obara said. “And also to fall in love with it hopefully, and want to protect it.” 

Public enthusiasm

For volunteers like Ruth McIlhenny, who brought her two sons, Noah and Nathan Gorme, and mother, Joanne McIlhenny, to the cleanup event, conservation efforts are important.

McIlhenny and her family have participated in other cleanup events such as cleaning up the beach in Cedar Key. She said they always try to clean up trash whenever they come across it and to leave no trace of it themselves, a set of ethics the Gorme brothers learned from their time as boy scouts.

Ruth McIlhenny said she was taught to love nature and to be in awe of it from her parents. Her mother, Joanne, is proud to see those same values shared by her grandchildren.

“It’s becoming their world,” she said, “and they really have to take care of it.”

By the end of the cleanup event, volunteers had gathered roughly 20 extra large bags of trash and a mound of metal car parts.

James Lasley, a former Alachua Conservation Trust volunteer and avid Prairie Creek hiker, was motivated by a similar thought. He said he is frustrated by the amount of sad environmental news that his daughter Julia, 29, and her generation are bombarded with. Lasley, who attended the event by himself, was glad to be surrounded by like-minded, environmentally conscious people during the event.

“Hopefully this will multiply all over the world someday,” he said.

Ecology of ‘Little Awesome’

Within the nearly 200 acres of space are a number of natural features that are of ecological importance to North Central Florida. Its namesake is a siphon, which is a naturally occurring feature that allows water to flow underground, called Little Awesome, also known as “Little Awesome Suck,” which takes after Big Awesome, a different siphon that lies just beyond the property bounds. The land is also home to a fissure that locals have affectionately named “Myrtle’s Crack,” as well as several small springs including Camp Spring which are all components of an intricate cave system beloved by many North Florida divers.

The land that comprises the Preserve was bought in 6 different tracts, each a little more than 30 acres. In total, the Alachua Conservation Trust paid $1.9 million for the property with help from a bridge loan that came from The Conservation Fund, a national organization that helps finance environmental conservation efforts across the country. The Conservation Fund previously helped the Alachua Conservation Trust with funding for Orange Lake Overlook in Marion County, a preserve that will be open in 2021, and a project at Santa Fe River preserve, according to Tom Kay, the executive director for the Alachua Conservation Trust.

Kay said that turning the 195 acres into protected land is an important part of maintaining this part of North Florida’s water systems. He said that a large portion of the land is located in a 100-year flood zone, otherwise known as a special flood hazard area, a title given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). So, protecting the area, and preventing building development, is a matter of public safety because it ensures that when flooding does occur, the area will function the way it naturally does instead of disrupting people’s homes and businesses, according to Kay.

Kay also sees economic benefits to turning the land into a preserve. He says that by preventing development and the implementation of septic tanks or agricultural infrastructure, the surface level water resources connected to the Floridan aquifer, including siphons like Little Awesome that recharge, or replenish groundwater, will not be disrupted or contaminated, subsequently protecting drinking water.

Promoting ecotourism

Another point of interest for preserving land along the Santa Fe River is to boost ecotourism, which Kay says is an increasing part of the local economy in areas like High Springs and Fort White.

About 62% of the river, on one side or the other, is currently designated as protected land. The Alachua Conservation Trust aims to acquire an additional 75,000 acres in the Santa Fe River Basin to designate as protected land by 2045.

Kay said he and his team strive to open up lands they acquire to the public within a year or a year and a half from when they were purchased so Little Awesome Preserve is expected to be accessible to the general public by the end of 2022.

Once open, the preserve will feature minimal infrastructure but include parking areas, hiking trails, benches for people to sit and possibly a kayak and canoe launch, Kay said. There are also areas of the preserve that would make for potential swimming areas depending on the water levels.

About Julia Cooper

Julia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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