The mission of Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) is to protect the natural, historic, scenic and recreational resources in and around Alachua County, Florida. ACT protects land through purchase, donation, and conservation easements.
Since its incorporation in 1988, Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) has helped preserve more than 50,000 acres of land in North Central Florida, directly participating in the purchase of 16,000 of those acres. For our first few years, ACT proposed, lobbied, and acquired lands with funding from the state's Preservation 2000 program. During this time ACT negotiated important additions to Paynes Prairie Preserve, 5000 acres of Newnans Lake, the Watermelon Pond project, additions to San Felasco Hammock Preserve, and the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area.
In the early 90s, ACT began working regionally, and accepted the donation of a 413-acre conservation easement in Yankeetown to protect a beautiful property along the rapidly developing Gulf coast. ACT also worked as the acquisition agent under contract to the Suwannee River Water Management District, protecting more than 1000 acres of land in the ten-year floodplain along the Suwannee River. ACT has a major conservation easement at Gum Slough in Sumter and Marion Counties. As the state geared up its staff capabilities to match its available funding, the need for ACT to be involved as an acquisition agent lessened.
During the mid- to late-90s, ACT restored the 1850's Historic Haile Homestead and accepted the generous donation of the 80-acre Saarinen Preserve near Jonesville. ACT also began to seek private conservation easements and negotiated some important ones, such as a 413-acre easement in Yankeetown, and a 659-acre easement near Millhopper Road.
Besides the "big, wild, and connected" lands, ACT proposed the Hogtown Creek Greenway, which winds its way through western Gainesville. The project received $3 million from the Florida Communities Trust and the City of Gainesville in 1991, and ACT acquired creek-side lands for this urban greenway connecting the University of Florida with Kanapaha Botanical Gardens several miles away. In 2008, ACT worked with the City of Gainesville and Home Depot to protect the headwaters of Hogtown Creek which resulted in an additional 70-acre park to complement our early efforts.
ACT also played a pivotal role in the creation of Alachua County Forever. Our first Conservation Steward's banquet, in 1998, provided the initial funding for the citizen's initiative. ACT's Executive Director at the time, Pegeen Hanrahan, also drafted the acquisition guidelines for the program with the help of County staff that has been widely recognized as creating transparency and fairness in selecting the properties to be acquired with public funds.
In 2001, the new Florida Forever program allowed land trusts to receive state funds directly from Florida Communities Trust ("FCT") for the purchase of conservation lands. ACT immediately began seeking these grants and is the most successful land trust in the state in receiving them. Our FCT projects include Blues Creek Ravine, a 163-acre nature sanctuary north of Millhopper Road, the 379-acre Lake Tuscawilla Preserve near Micanopy, and the 319-acre Prairie Creek Basin project. ACT also partnered or prepared grant proposals for Florida Communities Trust projects such as the Hogtown Creek Greenway (in the early 90's), Phifer Flatwoods, Bivens Branch, and the Hogtown Creek Headwaters.
In 2002, ACT received a conservation easement over 650-acres of a landmark private farm near San Felasco Hammock. In 2004, with the help of a conservation donor, ACT purchased the last rookery on Lake Santa Fe, protecting 1500 feet of shoreline where osprey, great blue heron, and egret nest every spring. The Hanson Sanctuary was conveyed to the State of Florida in 2006. Tuscawilla Preserve is 600 acres owned by ACT that was acquired from six different landowners from 2005 thru 2010. Funding was provided by generous local donors, and from the US Fish & Wildlife service and Florida Communities Trust. The Preserve has public trails and picnic facilities adjacent to Micanopy's native American Preserve Park. In 2005, ACT purchased the 643-acre Phifer Flatwoods at an auction, using funds raised and borrowed from 300 supporters. This property, which includes three miles along the Gainesville – Hawthorne Rail Trail, was sold to the Alachua County Forever program in early 2006 and was opened to the public in 2008.
In 2007, Alachua Conservation Trust worked with attorneys from public agencies and law students with the UF Conservation Clinic to develop a mechanism to ensure that parks could not be sold to finance short-term needs or converted into other non-park uses. After exploring many ideas, we proposed a "Registry of Protected Public Places." Properties could not be sold, swapped, or converted to another use without approval by the voters. Gainesville and Alachua County voters approved these measures by 81% and 75%, respectively. The first properties were added to the City's registry in March 2011, including Morningside Nature Center, Bivens Arm Nature Park, and Cofrin Nature Park.
Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC) opened in July 2009 and in December we conveyed a conservation easement over the cemetery to Alachua County Forever. PCCC was recently certified as a "Conservation Burial Ground" by the Green Burial Council. This is the highest level of certification awarded by the GBC, and we are the fourth burial ground in the country to hold such distinction.
In 2010 ACT added significant frontage along the Old Florida Heritage Scenic Highway (US 441) to our 600-acre Tuscawilla Preserve. We also transferred 500+ acres to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, including the most wild and scenic stretches of Prairie Creek. Tuscawilla Learning Center opened in 2011, staffed by volunteers dedicated to providing environmental education opportunities to children. Our offices at Prairie Creek Lodge have become a headquarters for public and private events, hosting environmental classes, concerts, fundraisers, meetings, and weddings. ACT is a true community resource.
In partnership with The Conservation Fund and Alachua County Forever, and partial funding from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, ACT recently negotiated the purchase of Little Orange Creek Preserve, just north of Hawthorne. We're continuing to pursue our Alachua-to-Lake Butler Rail Trail, and we are working on protecting three important properties along the Santa Fe River. Several private conservation easements are also in the works.
During ACT's 20 years, it has evolved along with the role of land trusts. When ACT began, the nation had fewer than 400 local land trusts. Today there are more than 1500. In Florida, ACT is one of only two local land trusts that are in the Top 50 nationwide in both acres and value of lands protected. In 2009 we became accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a program of the Land Trust Alliance. ACT has also set the curve in diversity of projects – from easements, to historic preservation, to outright acquisitions, to environmental education. ACT has partnered with many conservation organizations along the way, including ongoing projects with The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, The Conservation Fund, and the Conservation Trust for Florida.
Unfortunately, funding limitations, both in what ACT can raise privately, and what public agencies can commit, will always result in the heart-breaking triage of selecting what we can actually save. To a great extent, ACT must remain flexible, entrepreneurial, and opportunistic in selecting the projects that we work on. In the past, private conservation easements were not particularly attractive to many landowners, but increased federal tax incentives are generating more interest, particularly among people who have recently experienced large increases in property values, but have no speculative intent for their land.
When measured by the amount and value of land protected, Alachua Conservation Trust is second in Florida among local land trusts, and is one of the most respected land trusts nation-wide. When measured more subjectively, ACT has become the institution that most clearly projects this community's steadfast support of north Florida's natural beauty and rich heritage, and that we all agree is a legacy we must take responsibility for passing on to future generations.