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Nature Conservancy Picking Up Land at Bargains


The Nature Conservancy bought 1,000 acres at Blackwater River State Forest for $2.2 million this year from Rayonier. [Photo: Laurie Meehan-Elmer]

More Florida land that would otherwise be facing heavy development pressure has the potential to wind up in conservation instead — compliments of the real estate slump.

“We get calls every day from land owners large and small wanting to sell tracts that they had planned for housing developments that don’t look feasible for that in the near term,” says Richard Hilsenbeck, the Nature Conservancy’s associate director of land protection. “There are a lot of large real estate developers who have holdings that they would like to sell right now. And there are other land owners who are considering selling who weren’t considering selling before.”

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Based in Virginia and with offices in Tallahassee and Altamonte Springs, the Nature Conservancy promotes public ownership of environmentally sensitive land by facilitating deals for the state or buying the land itself and holding it until state funds become available. The organization, which has had a role in preserving more than 1 million acres in Florida, also helps set up conservation easements for land owners who don’t want to see their properties developed but need to continue some kind of economically productive activity on the land, such as agriculture.

Often, the money for the state’s eventual purchase comes from the state’s Forever Florida land-buying program, which provides up to $300 million a year for conservation. This year, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law extending the program through 2020.

David Dadurka, a conservancy spokesman, says the group is working on 30 potential land deals throughout Florida, some of which might take years to complete. He says the non-profit could easily be working on many more, but staff members have to prioritize the offers and typically turn down more offers than they pursue.

A major deal that closed this year involved 1,000 acres in the Panhandle’s Blackwater River State Forest. Rayonier, a forest products company based in Jacksonville, set aside the land from a public land auction and agreed to sell it instead to the Nature Conservancy for $2.2 million. The Blackwater land, says Mike Bell, Rayonier’s director of external affairs, was suitable for development but its “special conservation value” led to the Nature Conservancy deal. “Sometimes a land’s highest and best use is for development and sometimes it’s for conservation,” Bell says.