A Natural Treasure: Florida’s Sandhills & Grasslands

GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 4, 2021 A few miles southeast of Lake City, a 439-acre pristine sandhill ecosystem thrives. Tiny fall flowers stipple colored pinpoints onto an expanse of golden grasses. An occasional longleaf pine tree towers above the prairie where an astounding variety and number of native plants flourish. It’s an island that supports wildlife in a landscape being rapidly consumed by urban development.

Here, gopher tortoise, Eastern Indigo Snake, eastern meadowlark, Bachman’s sparrow, pollinators, and wintering and nesting grassland bird species that are in decline elsewhere abound. The sandhill ecosystem feeds Ichetucknee Springs, filtering water and recharging the Floridan Aquifer.

That’s why the Alachua Conservation Trust and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) put the J.Y. Wilson Trust property into an easement this year, protecting it forever. The easement is through the Agricultural Land Easement Program that keeps land in agriculture in ecologically sensitive landscapes. Hay production on 79 acres of the property will continue while the native grasslands on the remaining 439 acres are conserved.  

The easement keeps family lands intact and prevents them from being developed. This is one of the first grasslands of special significance designated in the state of Florida. “It was a way to keep the property and preserve the grassland,” said landowner Penny Weber.

Her family purchased the property in the mid-1950s and later placed it in a family trust. “Dad loved quail hunting and that’s why he never planted crops there,” Penny said. Through the decades the Webers have used fire to manage their grasslands and longleaf stands.  “When we were kids, Dad gave me and my brother a pine branch to swat the fire out if it jumped the fire line,” Penny said. When she married a forester, her dad had a burn partner.

The Webers mow to restore difficult areas that will not carry fire and use herbicides or mechanical methods to control invasive weeds and keep woody shrubs in check. Native grass seed regeneration has increased, and the area kept open with a variety of groundcover to support quail, turkey, and deer. Fifteen years ago, the South 40 Hunt Club began using the property as a training site for field trial dogs. 

We like to use it as a teaching site for the Florida Native Plant Society,” Penny said. Society members have documented more than 243 native plants on the property, at least twice the number found in restored sandhill where the fire was suppressed.

With Penny recently retired as a pharmaceutical sales representative, and Russ transitioning into retirement after 40-plus years as a forester, they look forward to spending more time in their grassland, taking care of it, learning more about native plants, and hosting tours to conservation groups. And on occasion, hunting quail. “I really love working with the land,” Russ said. “Now I’ll have time to work on different management technologies and methodologies.”  The Webers’ grown daughter and son have taken an interest as well. “There are all kinds of potential now to teach our kids and introduce them on how to manage sandhill,” Penny said.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that limits the use of the land to protect its conservation values. An agricultural land easement deed contains provisions that limit non-farm development. Conservation easements must provide public benefits, such as water quality, scenic views, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, education, and historic preservation. 

NRCS provides matching funds to entity partners based on the fair market value of the agricultural land. The agency contributes up to 50 percent for agricultural land easements and up to 75 percent for grasslands of special environmental significance. As the lead partner, Alachua Conservation Trust helped the Webers apply for the program and guided them through the process. The Trust holds the easement and will visit the property each year to make sure the terms of the deed are being met.

The program keeps farmland and ranchland from development and helps landowners pass on the land to the next generations. The proceeds can be invested into the operation, and the easement may lower a landowner’s federal and estate taxes.

The easement is a fitting legacy to Penny’s father, the late J.Y. Wilson. He was a former member of the Florida Legislature, served on the UF Foundation as Alumni President, and was a founding trustee of the Lake City Forest Ranger School in 1947. Mr. Wilson continued to serve when the institution became Lake City Community College. He continued to manage the property himself and worked with students from the Lake City Forest Ranger School to conduct prescribed burns.

“My dad was the one who was passionate about it, and it was his management for quail that kept the native plants and grasses. He just wanted to hunt quail, with no idea that his work was keeping the sandhill habitat that was rapidly diminishing with development and industrial agriculture,” Penny said. “We are just following what he was doing.”

Multiple partners that made the protection of this property possible are North Florida Land Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Suwannee River Water Management District, and Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience.

Since 1996, NRCS has provided financial and technical assistance for landowners to preserve 59,612 acres of agricultural land in Florida through easements.

Would you like to know more about how to apply for a conservation easement? American Farmland Trust has resources and information for landowners and entities.