Josh Martin, a senior at Hawthorne Middle/High School, enjoys the quiet of his rural area of Alachua County. Yet with the county having recently obtained property near his home in Lochloosa, Martin worries that the community’s quality of life may be in peril.
Alachua County Forever, the county’s environmental land acquisition program, paid $10.6 million for 3,936 acres between the Lochloosa Slough Preserve and the Fox Pen Tract against the Putnam County line.
It was the program’s largest single land purchase ever, according to a news release.
The potential for lots of additional visitors – not to mention litter and crime – has Martin, 19, eager to see how the county plans to manage and improve health and safety for his area.
“We want land to be protected, but we don’t want our way of life and our properties and our livelihoods to be destroyed because of it,” he said.
The 2,200 acres of pine flatwoods on the purchased property had been used for timber production and will be restored by reforestation with longleaf pine and prescribed fire, according to the release.
Charlie Houder, director of the county’s office of land conservation and management, said the program, which formed in 2000, closed on the acquisition in January. The funds came from Wild Spaces and Public Places, a surtax collected for conservation efforts and recreational facility and park creation, improvement and maintenance, according to the county website.
The county plans to consider allowing public hunting and public recreational access like biking, hiking and horseback riding. It is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to see how public hunting could work on the land, Houder said.
“We are going to be ensuring an environmentally sustainable future for the community,” he said. “We don’t need to do a lot of restoration there. We just need to let nature be nature.”
The property along with Lochloosa Slough Preserve and the Fox Pen Tract are all within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which is a statewide ecological corridor of land that can be used for meeting conservation efforts, according to the Florida Wildlife Corridor Coalition.
Alachua Conservation Trust Executive Director Tom Kay said the purchase is a “huge win” for protecting the forests in the region and drinking water.
“Having high-quality wetlands is really really important,” Kay said. “They’re sort of the kidneys for our whole system.”
Helene Rhine, 72, of the Florida Park neighborhood in Gainesville, was an avid runner for 30 years and still enjoys exploring new places to walk. Rhine said she favors recreational access on the new site, so residents can appreciate the natural environment, but not so much the idea of public hunting.
“How are you making sure that I don’t get shot?” Rhine asked.
Watch below: Andi Christman, environmental program supervisor for Alachua County Forever, explains the plans for the newly acquired land on the Putnam County border. (Antonia LaRocca/WUFT News)
Michelle Seitzmeir, 47, of Newberry, said she is thrilled that the funds from Wild Spaces and Public Places are going toward such a purchase.
“I just think there’s so much value in preserving the land that we still have,” Seitzmeir said. “It’s getting developed so quickly that seeing sections actually get set aside is a rare piece of good news these days.”
With the funds coming from the surtax, she said it would be wonderful if recreational access was allowed, so the people whose money helped buy the land could share in using it.
Andi Christman, the Alachua County Forever environmental program supervisor, said the purchases represent a legacy of residents committing to protecting conservation and wildlife.
The hope is to complete and present a management plan to the Alachua County Commission by the end of the year, and to begin conducting prescribed fire to prepare for reforestation by the winter, Christman said.
While program officials are already speaking with residents, the goal is to hold a public meeting to gain direct input from residents and the public this summer, she said.
“It’s a really great example of where the will of the citizens has yielded amazing outcomes on the ground,” Christman said.