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Protecting the puzzle piece of DeLuca Preserve from within and far beyond

Hilary Swain smiling with Buck Island Ranch in the background
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Hilary Swain, who is the executive director at Archbold Biological Station, appears in this photo at Buck Island Ranch on Nov. 3, 2021.

The fate of a last wildlands frontier hinges on politics, policy and tasks such as probing mosquito blood meals.

The Great Recession and Florida’s growth rules finished off Destiny, a proposed city that environmentalists feared would ignite a firestorm of still more development, charring wild places.

Reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve, a property four times as large as Winter Park and bigger than Fort Lauderdale, the land was given to the University of Florida for caretaking.

The choice was a head-scratcher in many quarters. The university has impressive environmental skill sets but doesn’t rank in the major leagues of caring for wildlands.

How could UF be trusted? It’s not unheard of for empire-minded schools to build on spaces that students revered as preserved.

Buck Island Ranch sign with ranch surrounding it
Orlando Sentinel
Buck Island Ranch, seen here on Nov. 3, 2021, is a project of Archbold Biological Station, demonstrating how ranching and nature can be compatible.

Whatever becomes of DeLuca Preserve, as a plan continues to emerge, the property remains watched by many experts who know its significance.

“Some pieces are really, really critical and some pieces allow you to build the big picture,” said Hilary Swain, who for 26 years has been the executive director of Archbold Biological Station, a research institute about an hour from DeLuca Preserve. “You put in that piece and suddenly all sorts of other pieces fall into place.”

Great watershed

Swain’s organization is a powerhouse of ecosystem expertise able to attract, for example, a $2 million gift this month from a conservation philanthropist. Nearly 20 years ago, Swain was on a state committee that prioritized lands for purchase and preservation. The group added what is now DeLuca Preserve to its list.

“This is one of the most critical jigsaw pieces,” Swain said.

Aerial shot of DeLuca Preserve
Carlton Ward Jr.
This aerial photo by Carlton Ward Jr. shows the mosaic of habitat types across DeLuca Preserve and surrounding lands.

DeLuca Preserve, Swain said, spans two of Florida’s great watersheds. One feeds the St. Johns River flowing north past Orlando to beyond Jacksonville. The other hydrates the Kissimmee River, which runs south to Lake Okeechobee of the Everglades ecosystem.

Whether on a given day the 42-square-mile tract provides water to the St. Johns or the Kissimmee depends on where in the vastness of DeLuca Preserve rain has fallen.

“You can think of this site as a little continental divide between those two great watersheds,” Swain said.

Fred DeLuca, the billionaire founder of the Subway sandwich empire, died in 2015 after a storied failure to create Destiny. His widow, Elisabeth, donated the property to the university a year ago.

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
A University of Florida IFAS sign for DeLuca Preserve stands along State Road 60 near Yeehaw Junction.

DeLuca Preserve technically is owned by the University of Florida Foundation, a nonprofit “fundraising and gift fund management arm of the University of Florida.”

The foundation, in turn, assigned custody of the land to UF’s behemoth Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, IFAS, which staffs an agriculture extension office in all counties of the state.

That handoff triggered suspicion that a fox was watching the hens. Many environmentalists suspect IFAS as willing to recommend fertilizing, aquifer pumping and other land-use practices detrimental to natural resources.

How it all played out was intricate and Floridian.

Everything connects

Jack Payne as a UF vice president also headed IFAS when DeLuca offered to donate the 27,000 acres of the former development site.

Jack Payne talking with trees in the background
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Jack Payne, retired University of Florida vice president and head of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences stands outside his Gainesville-area home Oct. 27, 2021. Payne was central to arranging UF's acceptance of DeLuca Preserve.

Payne has been a wildlife biologist, professor at Penn State and Texas A&M universities, conservation director at Ducks Unlimited and vice president at Utah State and Iowa State universities. He’s a raconteur, with tons of career talking points.

His part in the DeLuca Preserve story was to engage a closely connected conservation community.

He was approached, Payne said, “not from Mrs. DeLuca directly but from her lawyers that there is this ranch of 27,000 acres that her husband had wanted to develop, and there’s a story behind that you can read about.

“So he dies and she had a great love for the property and didn’t want it developed. She wanted to know if we would be interested if she donated the land. She wanted an easement on it.”

DeLuca demanded that rights to develop the property — using a legal tool called a conservation easement — be transferred to another organization unrelated to the university. That would reinforce the property’s protection.

DeLuca Preserve with tree in the field
Kevin Spear
DeLuca Preserve seen in this photo contains a mix of habitats, including forest, wetlands and great expanses of prairie.

Payne knew about conservation easements. While at Ducks Unlimited through the 1990s, he started that group’s program for accepting donations of great tracts of waterfowl lands. The donors wanted conservation easements, spelling out safeguards for donated lands.

He brought in a staff lawyer back then, David Marrone, to handle conservation easements.

Last year, “we wrote up the easement document in cooperation with Mrs. DeLuca’s lawyers, and, not knowing that in the end that Ducks Unlimited would be the entity to hold it, I sent the document to David Marrone just to look at.”

Marrone is now the group’s general counsel.

DeLuca Preserve is rich with birdlife, but it’s not a ducky place. Nevertheless, Ducks Unlimited seized the moment — and the DeLuca Preserve conservation easement.

“I would say this is not a typical easement that DU would hold because they really concentrated on heavy waterfowl use, but they felt the wetlands were important,” Payne said.

Putnam’s part

Conservation easements require monitoring by a third-party, environmental professional.

To cover the cost of that ongoing service, Ducks Unlimited turned to a nonprofit group that supports organizations in environmental conservation, the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

One of the foundation board members is Adam Putnam.

Adam Putnam speaking into a microphone
Steve Cannon/AP
Adam Putnam's political career included serving as Florida Agriculture Commissioner from 2011 to 2019. This photo of him is from 2015.

Putnam is a former state representative and congressman from Polk County, and a former Florida agriculture commissioner widely seen as groomed for the Governor’s Mansion.

But he was defeated by Ron DeSantis in the 2018 Republican primary.

Putnam then became chief executive officer of Ducks Unlimited.

The Fish & Wildlife Foundation pledged $100,000 to Ducks Unlimited to defray costs of expert monitoring of the DeLuca Preserve conservation easement.

The foundation provided another $10,000 to help cover real-estate closing costs from DeLuca’s donation and $90,000 for researching endangered species on the property.

“The easement says what can be done and where on DeLuca Preserve,” said Andy Walker, president and chief executive officer of the Fish & Wildlife Foundation. He directed The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee chapter in the 1990s when Payne served on that chapter’s board.

“There’s a small footprint where they can do classrooms and then the easement goes into great detail about water flow, endangered species and other aspects,” Walker said.

“UF has been legally told to work within these boundaries,” Walker said. “I think, too, that the DeLuca family and surrounding landowners are one way or another going to remain stakeholders. I think there will be a lot of reinforcement for UF to make this work.”

UF’s marching orders for the mega parcel were done.

“I think it was pretty brilliant,” said Dean Saunders, who in the 1990s was a state representative from Polk County. When Saunders left that legislative office, Putnam replaced him.

Saunders also founded a firm that has brokered many mega transactions of Florida’s rural lands.

One such deal arranged by Saunders was the purchase in 2005 by Pugliese and DeLuca of the 27,000 acres for their Destiny project.

“I loved the way that it turned around because the land will stay what it is but can be used for resources, research and conservation,” Saunders said.

Protected nucleus

Many of Florida’s premier environmental lands are arrayed in a great circle around DeLuca Preserve. Each has a different owner with different objectives.

Map of DeLuca Preserve and Florida Wildlife Corridor
A. Meeks, Archbold Biological Station, using priority data from UF Center for Landscape Conservation Planning
Near Yeehaw Junction in south Osceola County, DeLuca Preserve is within a Florida wildlife corridor and is surrounded by some of the state's premier conservation parcels in dark green and other lands in light green that environmental groups and officials hope to protect.

Adjoining DeLuca Preserve’s southern border is — for dedicated conservationists — one of the state’s most hallowed properties: the 54,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve Park. Bought for conservation in 1997, it contains one of Florida’s few remaining expanses of treeless prairie.

To the west is Avon Park Air Force Range, a 107,000-acre tract that the Department of Defense has showcased as a treasure of natural environment.

Three Lakes entrance sign
Orlando Sentinel
Entrance to Three Lake Wildlife Management Area near DeLuca Preserve and Yeehaw Junction.
 The red boundary in the map depicts the fledgling Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge
National Wildlife Refuge Association
The red boundary depicts the fledgling Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012 to protect “one of the last remaining grassland and longleaf pine savanna landscapes in eastern North America.”

To the north is the 63,000-acre Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, a hunting refuge purchased in 1974 and cared for by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to a level approaching pristineness.

To the east is a collection of conservation areas spanning 130,000 acres of headwaters of the St. Johns River, Florida’s longest river, and belonging to the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Also part of that sweep of conservation lands is the fledgling Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012 to protect “one of the last remaining grassland and longleaf pine savanna landscapes in eastern North America.”

There’s still more protected space, including part of the Adams Ranch, under conservation easements that allow cattle grazing and prohibit development.

In all, the nucleus of protected lands in the wild frontier linking Central and South Florida is formidable, promising a great conservation victory. But it is not invincible, not yet.

Nobody knows better than Julie Morris, who grew up in Nokomis, a rural place south of Sarasota, where she rode horses and befriended ranching families.

‘It’s possible’

Much of her childhood landscape is gone now, consumed as she grew up by golf courses, subdivisions and traffic. By age 8, Morris kept a list of roadkill she encountered.

“What happened there formed what I wanted to do as a career,” Morris said.

She studied environmental science at Rollins College, volunteered with Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, worked in Montana forestry and Florida gopher tortoise conservation, earned a master’s in wildlife ecology at UF and went back home to family in Nokomis.

Julie Morris smiling, leaning against a fence
Orlando Sentinel
Julie Morris, Florida program manager for the National Wildlife Refuge Association and director of the Florida Conservation Group, is seen here at a ranch in Ona on Nov. 3, 2021.

Since 2015, Morris has been the Florida program manager for the National Wildlife Refuge Association and director of the Florida Conservation Group, whose mission is to promote and facilitate acquisitions of natural lands, with a priority for those surrounding DeLuca Preserve.

“This is one of the hot spots in the country when we are talking about incredible biodiversity being under such development pressure,” Morris said.

“For the past several years, we were just trying to squeeze any penny we could out of any public agency to piece together what we could and leverage as much as we could to stretch every dollar to buy land,” she said. “It was exhausting.”

But the past year has seen Destiny repurposed as DeLuca Preserve, passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act and the state of Florida allocating several hundred million dollars for land acquisition.

Morris wants to call DeLuca Preserve a miracle, though that’s not language that saddles readily with politics, policy and conservation science.

“You can become pessimistic working in land conservation in Florida. But for the first time, I feel comfortable acknowledging some hope,” Morris said. “I think we have a little more spring in our step right now and we can think ‘OK, it’s possible.’”

Research surge

When Payne retired from UF last year, he tried to make the coastal Gulf of Mexico island of Cedar Key his home. But vulnerability to hurricanes and rising sea levels prompted him to retreat inland, to return to Gainesville, to academia and DeLuca Preserve.

Jack Payne speaking with trees in the background
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Jack Payne, retired head of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, may return for research at DeLuca Preserve.

Payne regrets the rising whipsaw of politics in Florida.

But as DeLuca Preserve exists today, Payne said, it fits squarely within IFAS’ mission: figure out how to feed the world’s growing population, minimize resources needed to produce food, improve environmental conservation, reckon with the planet’s changing climate and teach students the above.

“There’s talk of me being involved on the wildlife side of DeLuca Preserve,” Payne said. “Maybe I’ll be writing some of its management plans. I’ll be back.”

He will have company. DeLuca Preserve already has been invaded by biologists, ecologists and other scientists. IFAS is surging research on forests, fungi, other flora and, of course, wildlife.

One group of scientists will poke around in mosquito guts, using DNA of blood meals as a census method for what wildlife lives where among pasture, prairie and forests of DeLuca Preserve.

The researchers may encounter the blood of a bird that has been the focus of one of the nation’s most harrowing endangered-species emergencies.

Gloved hand holding a grasshopper sparrow
Carlton Ward Jr.
Florida grasshopper sparrow research is being done by Archbold Biological Station scientists at DeLuca Preserve.