195-acre nature reserve in Columbia County to open to public in 2022

Before a team of volunteers joined forces on Saturday morning to clear an area 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 teachers and residents of Alachua County concerned with local conservation efforts gathered near a small fence opening along the road. County 138 about 40 minutes from downtown Gainesville.

Volunteers worked together from 9 a.m. to noon to clean up debris from the 195-acre reserve, which will soon be open to the public. The land was purchased in July after outbid a property development group based in Jacksonville.

According to Heather Obara, associate director of the Alachua Conservation Trust, Alachua Conservation Trust officials were informed of the sale of the land about a week before it was auctioned through newspaper advertisements and calls. worried citizens wanting to see him protected.

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

The clean-up event, which was hosted by the Alachua Conservation Trust, provided an opportunity to comb through and pick up the litter left behind after the land was used as a dumping ground and hunting area, as well as d ‘get people to see the reserve before it is officially unveiled to the general public, Obara said.

“It turns people on, they’ve never been on the property before so it’s a chance to see it before anyone can see it,” Obara said. “And also to fall in love with him, hopefully, and to want to protect him.”

Public enthusiasm

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

McIlhenny and his family participated in other cleanup events such as the Cedar Key Beach Cleanup. She said they always try to clean up the trash whenever they meet them and leave no traces of it themselves, a set of ethics the Gorme brothers learned from their time as Boy Scouts.

Ruth McIlhenny said her parents taught her to love and be in awe of nature. Her mother, Joanne, is proud to see these same values ​​shared by her grandchildren.

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

By the end of the clean-up event, volunteers had gathered around 20 extra-large garbage bags 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 was frustrated with the amount of sad environmental news that his daughter Julia, 29, and her generation are bombarded with. Lasley, who attended the event on his own, was happy to be surrounded by like-minded and environmentally conscious people during the event.

“I hope it will multiply one day around the world,” he said.

Ecology of the ‘Petit Génial’

Within the nearly 200 acres of space are a number of natural features of ecological significance to north central Florida. Its namesake is a siphon, which is a natural 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 sits just beyond the property lines. The land is also home to a fissure that locals affectionately named “Myrtle’s Crack,” as well as several small springs, including Camp Spring, all of which are components of an intricate cave system enjoyed by many North Florida divers.

The lands that make up the reserve were purchased in 6 different parcels, each just over 30 acres. In total, the Alachua Conservation Trust paid $ 1.9 million for the property with the help of a bridging loan from The Conservation Fund, a national organization that helps fund environmental conservation efforts across the country. The Conservation Fund previously assisted the Alachua Conservation Trust by funding Orange Lake Overlook in Marion County, a reserve that will open in 2021, and a project at the Santa Fe River Reserve, according to Tom Kay, executive director of the Alachua Conservation Trust. .

Kay said turning the 195 acres into conservation land is an important part of maintaining this part of North Florida’s water systems. He said much of the land is located in a centennial flood zone, otherwise known as a special flood zone, a title given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). So protecting the area and preventing the development of buildings is a matter of public safety as it ensures that in the event of a flood the area will function as it does naturally instead of disrupting people’s homes and businesses, according to Kay. .

Kay also sees economic benefits in turning the land into a reserve. He says that by preventing the development and installation of septic tanks or agricultural infrastructure, the surface water resources connected to the florida aquifer, including siphons like Little Awesome which reload, or replenish groundwater, will not be disturbed or contaminated, subsequently protecting drinking water.

Promote ecotourism

Another focus of land preservation along the Santa Fe River is stimulating ecotourism, which Kay says is a growing 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 territory. The Alachua Conservation Trust aims to acquire an additional 75,000 acres in the Santa Fe River basin to designate them as protected land by 2045.

Kay said he and his team are working to open up the land they acquire to the public within a year or a year and a half of their purchase, so Little Awesome Preserve should be accessible to the public. general public by the end of 2022.

Once opened, the reserve will have minimal infrastructure, but will include parking areas, hiking trails, seating benches and possibly a kayak and canoe launch pad, Kay said. There are also areas of the reserve that would constitute potential bathing areas depending on water levels.

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