Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast aims to protect water and green space for decades to come.
Christine Johnson sees a certain connection between people and sensitive lands, one that might not be immediately apparent to everyone who owns rugged shoes, a pair of binoculars or a fly-fishing rig.
Make no mistake: Johnson, the president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast sees those people, too.
But it’s children who are often on her mind, many of whom have never experienced the land as weekend hikers, bird-watchers or anglers do. Her organization, itself based at a free-and-open-to-the-public former estate alongside the bay in Osprey, for years dedicated itself to setting aside land from development, something less than two dozen similar organizations statewide also do.
But through its Next Gen Conservation initiative, the foundation and its supporters have branched off a second prong to support the first: introducing kids to what nature can offer.
"So we are creating the next generation of conservationists in this program, but the feel-good about it is we have stories that will make you well up with tears to hear kids say: 'I've never had my feet in the sand,'" she said. "I've never been to the beach. I don't see anybody here that looks like me. I don't know how to fish. So we're teaching them to fish, we're teaching them to kayak, we're taking them out to Myakka. That's really, really rewarding."
Working with youth groups, such as Boys and Girls Club Sarasota and Girls Inc., the foundation since 2017 has presented programs for kids to not only experience the outdoors but also see the basics of land preservation and career options that might have been invisible to them otherwise.
Johnson said she looks at a similar program in Asheville, North Carolina, as a model. She said that organization has developed college scholarships for natural-science careers in addition to getting children out to work on trails and learn deeper about the land.
"We're not there yet, but we are having these kids ask Sabrina (Cummings) who heads up the youth program, 'Wait a minute, you get to do this every day,'" Johnson said. '"You're outside every day. What did you do? How did you get here?'"
Since it began in 2003 in a small office over a carpet store on U.S. 41, not far from its current home in Osprey's Bay Preserve, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast has helped set aside about 18,000 acres in Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Initially, the focus was on coastal areas, but of late the foundation has turned its attention inland, seeking to insulate watershed-adjacent lands from development and link preserved lands with the goal of protecting drinking water, ensuring biodiversity and maintaining outdoor recreational opportunities.
In Florida, 21 similar nonprofits exist. The foundation and five others are accredited under a rigid set of criteria that must be renewed every five years.
The notion of leaving a legacy of a land saved forever is often the goal of a private owner or a government entity. Either way, the foundation works to help preserve green space for public use out of reach for future development plans.
"When we're talking about land conservation, the landowner has rights," Johnson said. "And one of those rights is that they can conserve their land in perpetuity with a land trust. And why is it in perpetuity with a land trust and not elsewhere because we have our own code in the IRS that says when we acquire land with a conservation easement, it must be forever."
How it works
It often starts with an idea and a conversation. Johnson said the typical way her organization had gotten involved in a project is a simple chat with a landowner who, for one reason or another, wants to see property set aside from development.
She said she's a firm believer that not all land needs to be saved. But, she said, in the case of a recent transaction, the conversation about a parcel on the east end of Fruitville Road just made sense. She said the owner was situated between county land and land already preserved by the foundation. He wanted to sell, and soon, but the county was months away from a decision. Developers were interested, too.
"We stepped in and bought it," Johnson said. "And then we turned around and said to the county, 'OK, now we own it. Do you want buy it from us?' And they did. So that's a new way of doing it. The traditional way is like sitting at the kitchen table with the landowner. This now we are starting to work with government agencies in a more creative way."
"Quickening the pace of conservation," is a trend tracking with the real estate market in the land-conservation world made possible with flexible dollars in a fund that can be repaid when, as in this case, the county fulfills its agreement to ultimately buy the land.
Saving Bobby Jones
The foundation has found its way into the headlines recently through its participation in the city of Sarasota’s preservation of the Bobby Jones Golf Course property, the “re-wilding” of three of four county-owned parcels near Celery Fields, the addition in 2012 of about 150 acres originally slated for residential development into Robinson Preserve in Manatee County and other projects.
Throughout its work, the word "perpetuity" pops up with more relevance than simply an idea.
Using the Bobby Jones land as an example, a conservation easement agreement between the foundation and the city is a binding pact. The idea that through a series of legal criteria and in-person monitoring, the land remains city property but must remain green and open to the public despite what future generations of elected officials might favor.
"So for instance, Bobby Jones, $65,000 we need to have deposited into our endowment specifically for Jones to pay the insurance, to pay the staff in perpetuity, to protect that conservation easement," Johnson said.
As city leaders considered what do to about its municipal golf course land, the idea dawned that a conservation easement might be the right move. The city could focus on the golf course portion and the foundation could focus on setting aside dozens of acres as a nature park while raising money for its conversion into a park.
Through a series of public workshops and charettes, a vision for the property materialized, she said.
"So that's how it starts, whether it's a private landowner or a municipality, what is the end result that we're trying to get to?" she said "And then what tools in our toolbox can we use to make that happen?"
Ultimately, City Commissioners in January approved sweeping plans for the golf facility on Circus Boulevard, approving a plan to reset the design of the course to a path drawn by famed golf architect Donald Ross in 1924. They also approved an agreement with the foundation to hold the 261 acres as a conservation easement forever.
As development moves east, away from the already developed coast, so does the attention of organizations such as Johnson's. Upland rivers and watersheds are critical to downstream populations in the five counties in which the foundation works.
Linking lands and filling in gaps to create connectivity is one of the organization's foundational goals, which Johnson said becomes more important in the decades to come.
"We are beginning to dip our toe into the counties just east of those five, she said. "Why? Because nobody else is. And because of quickening the pace of conservation, because real estate is quickening its pace, everything is moving east. There isn't any more land west and people are truly concerned about global warming and sea level rise. So we are seeing a lot more development in those inland counties."
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