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Environment

Last stand for Florida wildlands

wildlands
Carlton Ward Jr.
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The vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development project failed. This aerial photo depicts the property's mosaic of habitat types.

A vast wilderness linking Central and South Florida was spared when plans for a massive development fell apart and the land became the DeLuca Preserve. What’s next may be a great environmental success.

The Big Dipper shines brazenly for its nightly do-si-do with the North Star above a place where natural Florida’s future is turning.

This landscape takes in preserves and ranches. It provides a corridor between South and Central Florida’s critical environments. The woods, wetlands, prairie and pasture here may save panthers from many foes, rescue birds in the claw of extinction and harbor native flora vanishing from the state.

In the heart of it, 70 miles from Orlando and 80 from West Palm Beach, in south Osceola County, lies a 27,000-acre tract.

Known for dark nights, the property was called Destiny by a billionaire dreaming of a city for a quarter-million people and dazzling not with stars but with lights.

Today, from amid its pine forests, when swaddled in boondocks blackness, meteors and the brassy flickers of raccoon eyes, it’s easy to imagine the billionaire massing bulldozers.

cows in a field
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
A vast expanse of ranch and wildlands provide a critical wildlife corridor between Central and South Florida.

And be awed by what is unfolding.

With surprising grace and a dash of only-in-Florida, the 27,000 acres were spared from development. Hopes for preservation have soared not just for the big tract but for the surrounding constellation of small and large parcels of natural lands, and for much of Florida. Conservationists have regained footing after a decade of lost ground.

This wild frontier spans many counties, including Osceola, Brevard and Okeechobee. It runs to the west along the Kissimmee River, appears as scenery for an hour of Florida’s Turnpike driving and spreads east to the cities of the Atlantic coast.

Its ranches and wilderness link the Everglades of South Florida to the St. Johns River birthplace in Central Florida.

That sweep of undeveloped space serves as the prime remaining natural gateway to the rest of Florida’s conservation lands.

This is where environmental proponents have played a long game of skill, intention, grind, chance and worry, and have arrived somewhat startled within closing distance of a monumental achievement. In a crowded state of 21 million residents, a legacy of land scamming and the contemporary dismantling of its growth-watchdog agency, they may succeed in protecting a critical landscape.

natural prairie in a field
Carlton Ward Jr.
/
The vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development project collapsed. Its 27,000 acres contain natural prairie as seen in this photo.

Luck, fate or a pendulum swing have handed them and this region a reprieve, a last stand for attempting one of the state’s great conservation victories.

“We all knew it was really important and we wanted it to happen,” said Julie Morris, a professional conservationist. “Did I think it would happen like this? Quite honestly, no.”

Braided strands

The history knotting around the property formerly known as Destiny is a thick rope of braided strands, twisting together for decades.

Ecologist Reed Noss grabbed one strand nearly 40 years ago, honing the scientific explanation for why the remote, 27,000-acre tract in south Osceola County and the expanse of natural lands around it are treasured today.

Reed Noss standing in a field
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
Reed Noss, conservation biologist, president of the Florida Institute for Conservation Science and former UCF professor, was among Florida's early proponents of connecting the state's environmental jewels to provide wildlife life corridors. Ross is seen here at the Gold Head Branch State Park in Keystone Heights Oct. 27, 2021.

A former University of Central Florida professor, Noss is a prolific writer and wilderness wanderer who is acerbic about habitat and wildlife degradations.

But the revelation during the depths of COVID-19 that the real estate formerly known as Destiny shall be protected from people and pavement was different.

“It’s the best news I’ve heard for Florida conservation in the past dozen years,” Noss said. “Without question,” he said, with professorial gravitas.

The sparing of the 27,000 acres occurred as a statewide campaign to safeguard and to connect large, environmental landscapes — like the one surrounding the former Destiny — has attained support that had been unthinkable until recently.

Florida’s wild side and for those whose hearts palpitate with it are benefactors of a turn in destiny.

Here in chapters to come are the turn’s prelude, present and intended postscript.

grasslands with trees and sky in the background
Kevin Spear
/
Orlando Sentinel
The frontier of wildlands between Central and South Florida contain expanses of natural prairie.

Here, as well, is a burr of discomfort.

The sparing of the former Destiny is profound. It no longer promises a beachhead for development. Its new path points to ecological stability.

‘We’ll see’

But outside the former Destiny boundaries, many properties are protected while others face uncertainty. In that context, the 27,000-acre tract is a sideshow to something bigger.

The coming decades are expected to bring a crush of development that decides once and for all which of Florida’s natural lands will be paved and which will be saved.

Out of the starting gate, for example, the legendary Deseret Ranches plans a mosaic of urban development across 130,000 acres of its holdings in north Osceola County. The future cityscape is a half-hour north of the former Destiny.

Across a highway from the Destiny tract is Adams Ranch, dating to 1937 and more recently a pioneer in the emerging practice of mixing cattle, endangered species, pasture and native grasses, all to enable nature and to earn a buck from ranching.

 Mike and his son Zach Adams riding horses
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
Mike and his son Zach Adams of Adams Ranch round up cattle on their ranch. Their ranch has been a pioneer in maintaining pasture that benefits cattle and wildlife. They are seen here in November, 2021.

“We think Florida’s future is with a working landscape. We would like to see cattle 100 years from now, maybe, on the same properties, still paying taxes and still a productive agriculture operation,” ranch president Mike Adams said.

A critical mass of environmental conservation is taking shape after so many years of so much effort by every conservation group working in the state. But Florida is still a magnet for migration and construction.

Devotions of the multigenerational Adams Ranch, as well as expectations for the land known as Destiny and the wilderness wrapping around it, may take a dive if development ventures gain any toehold.

“We will see,” Adams said.

Amazing gift

Destiny debuted one year ago renamed as DeLuca Preserve.

wildlands map
Angeline Meeks
/
Archbold Biological Station
The vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. DeLuca Preserve, at 27,000 acres, is 70 miles south of Orlando and 80 north of West Palm Beach. DeLuca Preserve is critical for efforts to establish a corridor for wildlife.

The announcement from the University of Florida was a bolt from the blue. “I remember thinking ‘What the heck, where did that come from?’” Audubon scientist Paul Gray said.

The tract of 42 square miles had “been gifted to the University of Florida to protect one of the last natural areas of its kind and to serve as a living classroom and laboratory.”

UF described the donation by Elisabeth DeLuca, widow of the billionaire founder of Subway and would-be developer of Destiny, as “among the largest gifts of real estate ever to any university in the nation.”

The DeLuca Preserve is four times as large as Winter Park, twice as large as Kissimmee and still much larger than Fort Lauderdale.

The announcement stood out from prevailing environmental themes in Florida, including toxic algae discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the collapsing Indian River Lagoon ecosystem that has left manatees starving to death.

It also was welcome news to environmentalists and other lovers of wild places, who saw the former Destiny as a black hole that would suck housing, commercial strips and roads into the thinly populated, 80-mile stretch between St. Cloud and Okeechobee.

Elisabeth Deluca profile photo
Lannis Waters
/
The Palm Beach Post
The failed Destiny development project was renamed as DeLuca Preserve when Elisabeth DeLuca, widow of Fred DeLuca, donated the property to the University of Florida. She is seen here in court in 2017 during lawsuit proceedings over the development project.

In that regard, a single person, DeLuca, may have steered Florida’s land use as few have.

But she is an enigma in her 70s, previously licensed as a nurse. She has spoken through her lawyers and through UF’s statement announcing the donation.

“Few things in this world are as precious — and threatened — as our untamed lands and the wild animals that live there,” DeLuca said. “We need to preserve what we can for the benefit of all of us.

Whether she reaped tax gains from the donation, as some speculate, may have been true. Her office did not return calls. But motives don’t matter. The donation, layered with intricacies, is done.

DeLuca actively went out of her way to ink legalities so that the university can do little with the land bearing her name other than sustain its ecosystems and use it as a classroom.

UF IFAS sign in a field
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
A University of Florida sign for DeLuca Preserve stands near U.S. 441 and S.R. 60 at Yeehaw Junction. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021.

“The gift is stunning in scope and although I have never met the lady, she must have an amazing heart,” said Randy Johnson, a former state legislator and former chief operating officer of the Land Company of Osceola County LLC, the entity that sought to create the city of Destiny.

“She deserves the thanks of every Floridian for her gift. Its value can be measured against some of our most treasured national parks. I compliment her for her generosity.”

Cattle and caracaras

The gateway to DeLuca Preserve is Yeehaw Junction, the location of the defunct Desert Inn, a landmark and former purveyor of liquor and rooms towering two stories above the cowboy landscape.

The junction is where tractor-trailers growl through their gears for exits to Florida’s Turnpike, the north-south U.S. Highway 441 and the east-west route between Tampa and Vero Beach, State Road 60.

A wayward 18-wheeler T-boned the vacant inn a few years ago. It remains upright, veneered with fresh apocalypse and weathered nostalgia.

Truck driving pass the Desert Inn
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
Desert Inn is still standing at the crossroads at the Yeehaw Junction of Florida's Turnpike, U.S. 441 and S.R. 60 in Yeehaw Junction, which sees heavy truck traffic.

Yeehaw’s ambience conveys you are far from home in miles and eras. Punching the gas a couple more minutes gets to the barbed wire and gates of DeLuca Preserve.

During its years as a development project and now with a new owner, the land has been cared for by a property-management firm.

Exterior of Desert Inn
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
/
Orlando Sentinel
Desert Inn at Yeehaw Juntion is veneered with fresh apocalypse and weathered nostalgia.

One of its workers, Jorge Poll, is an ambassador to visitors arriving under prior permission. That’s not really his responsibility, but he’s gracious.

Poll’s seasoned, F-350 diesel, dual-rear-wheel pickup is his rolling resume, jouncing with implements for upkeep of fence, ditch and dirt road.

Raised on a family farm in Cuba, Poll considers himself rooted to the property’s every acre.

Though many roads are indistinguishable for a newcomer, Poll encourages exploration. “Go where you want,” he said, smiling, but also suggesting wariness around sugar sand and mud holes.

Jorge Poll standing against a truck
Kevin Spear
/
Orlando Sentinel
Jorge Poll is an unofficial ambassador for DeLuca Preserve. He works for the property-management company. He knows every one of the property's 27,000 acres. "Go where you want," he said. Photo taken in 2021.

Cell reception is passable. “If you get in a tight spot, text me,” Poll said, with a wave.

The vista to the west, for fans of Florida’s native lands, has tantalized government and nonprofit authorities for decades.

Longleaf pines, nobility among the state’s flora, rise majestically from undulating seas of other native royalty, taller bluestem grass and shorter wiregrass.

trees in a preserve
Carlton Ward Jr.
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DeLuca Preserve contains majestic scenery of longleaf pines and native grasses, a disappearing Florida habitat type that few Floridians get a chance to appreciate.
DeLuca Preserve Map
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
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The 27,000 acre DeLuca Preserve has nearly 1,000 acres of citrus cropland, which is marked in burgundy color and is primarily along the northern boundary. The yellow areas amount to 3,000 acres of unique Florida terrain called dry prairie. The purple area toward the eastern boundary shows nearly 4,000 acres of pine forest that remains mostly dry and serves as high quality habitat for wildlife. The brown indicates nearly 5,000 acres of marsh. The green shows nearly 10,000 acres of pasture.
Close-up of bird
Christina Evans
/
cgstudios.smugmug.com
The crested caracara seen here is emblematic of the lands in and around DeLuca Preserve.

The view conjures the Florida most Floridians have little idea of, an open, primeval terrain sown with aromatic, blossoming, bushy, prickly, feathery, carnivorous and fruit-bearing plants once common.

Farther west, terrain subdues into a mosaic of pasture, some manicured and some coarse, bordered by drainageways, cypress domes and oak hammocks.

DeLuca Preserve is not a preserve by the state’s definition, which prioritizes pristine conditions. Instead, the big land makes room for a mix of character.

Cattle and citrus are here and there.

There also are crested caracaras, raptors conveying fierceness even while sporting what appears to be a toupee.

There are white-tailed kites, spectral and distinctive with what nobody forgets — volcanically red eyes.

And everywhere are yellow bobbles of musical jewelry, eastern meadowlarks.

Meteoric spectacle

Two decades ago, state authorities deemed parts of the property as reminiscent of pre-European times.

In 2004, they decided they really wanted to purchase the 27,000 acres for conservation and took a serious shot at it.

Also that year, the nation’s housing markets and Florida’s enthusiasm for residential development in suburban and rural places were roiling. Entrepreneurs with grand ideas for raising a new city also coveted all those acres at Yeehaw Junction in the middle of nowhere.

In 2005, would-be developers outbid conservation agents, offering a staggering $137 million.

What followed was meteoric. Many watched a spectacle of recession, feud, criminal charges and a prison sentence. When it flamed out, environmentalists knocked wood, daring to wish.

Trees in middle of a preserve
Carlton Ward Jr.
/
The vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. This scene is from DeLuca Preserve forest.

Could a place of destiny be a miracle for Florida’s nature and for generations to come?

In chapters ahead, a cast of characters provides an answer of historic proportions: a Latina bird expert from remote Mexico, a creator of a Tanzania game preserve, dwellers of ivory towers, generational ranchers, a Peace Corps veteran turned conservation soldier, a Florida photographer with a missionary’s drive, a Tampa tech entrepreneur taking on a philanthropic passion and a bunch of environmentalists with deep knowledge.

They’re here, pulling on that thick rope of braided strands to save Florida wildlands.

Kevin Spear has reported for nearly 30 years on Florida protection of environmental lands. He tent camped, explored and joined researchers at DeLuca Preserve to report this story. kspear@orlandosentinel.com

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.