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Crowdsourcing is being used to help buy up parcels of land in Florida

As state officials focus on buying massive areas of undeveloped land, crowdsourcing efforts are being used across the region and state to try and preserve smaller pieces of nature.

Head west along Klosterman Road in Tarpon Springs, just before it dead ends at the Gulf of Mexico. There, you'll see gates protecting 14 acres of trees and Florida scrub.

Just a few feet from the two-lane road is a scene that could have been witnessed by native Americans centuries ago. Tour guide Brad Husserl, leans over and picks up an arrow fragment made of a rock called chert.

“Looking at this piece, it almost looks like someone was trying to create an arrowhead,” he said, smoothing the stone with his fingers. “So this could possibly be a prehistoric arrowhead. You find it, just walking around, after it rains.”

man holds Native American arrowhead in his palm
Steve Newborn
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WUSF Public Media
Brad Husserl shows off a Native American arrowhead on the property

Husserl is chairman of the West Klosterman Preservation Group. It's a group of local residents who have banded together to prevent this home to more than 60 species of native plants, trees and wildlife from becoming another subdivision.

Now, all they need is about $3 million dollars. By July.

So far, they've raised only 12 percent of the money being asked by the owners of the property - Pinellas County Schools.

After deciding the land was prone to flooding, the district agreed to sell the land to a developer. But after nearby residents protested, school board members agreed to call off the sale - if residents and those wanting to preserve the property could raise enough money.

This isn't a new strategy in Florida or elsewhere.

Over the past few years, crowdsourcing has been increasingly been used to preserve parcels of land in suburban and urban settings in the greater Tampa Bay region. Environmental groups across the country provide resources for people wanting to scrape together funds to purchase land or support biodiversity efforts.

In 2020, Sarasota area groups teamed up to preserve an area known as the Celery Fields. The former farm has been transformed into a sanctuary for scores of bird species through the efforts of scores of volunteers. It has become a must-see stopping off point for birders, with 226 species of birds counted in its 400 acres.

The following year, activists raised about $10 million dollars in donations to preserve the Gladys Douglas Hackworth property in Dunedin.

Pine cones hanging in scrub
Steve Newborn
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WUSF Public Media
Pine cones on property residents are trying to raise money to buy and preserve.

Husserl says he's encouraged these kind of efforts could save this latest parcel along Klosterman Road that would connect with the county's 76-acre Mariner's Point management area, just to the north along the Gulf.

“That actually does give us a lot of hope,” he said, “because it proves that we have local foundations, or let's say local citizens, who have the means to save the properties like this that are interested in saving the properties, and they've stepped forward and done it.”

Green ribbons tied along the West Klosterman entrance fence mark $20 donations. But individual crowdsourcing only goes so far. Husserl says they're reaching out to foundations, something that made purchases like Celery Fields possible.

Preserving land used to be the sole domain of local governments and the state of Florida. But with rampant development closing in on many more urban parcels, locals are needing to step up to preserve spaces that fly under the government's radar.

Jaclyn Lopez of St. Petersburg is the Florida manager of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“When you see some of the last spaces that have trees and just a bit more nature and there's a real risk of losing it, it just mobilizes people in a way that maybe they don't feel motivated until it's at that threshhold moment where it's about to blink out,” Lopez said.

Man stands in open area
Steve Newborn
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WUSF Public Media
Don Richardson stands near a gopher tortoise hole

“I think people and even groups of people have been doing this sort of thing, rallying together to preserve what's left. And I think they're mobilized by the recognition of this is the last bit of wild space in the area.”

Florida currently has about 10 million acres - nearly one-third of the state - in protected public and private lands. Four and a half million acres are wetlands and federal holdings, such as Everglades National Park. Since Florida Forever - the state's main land preservation program - was launched in 2001, it has purchased nearly 900,000 acres at a cost of over $3 billion.

Klosterman group organizer Donald Richardson says the focus of that program has been on larger, rural tracts. They really don't care about this postage-stamp parcel of only 14 acres.

So it's up to "locals" like him to preserve smaller, overlooked places.

Richardson, who moved from the concrete of Detroit to get his doctorate in botany at the University of South Florida, said he realized these smaller places are what makes Florida special.

“So if you find that open space gives you that piece of mind, then what you find that people are doing is to say, I need a cause,” Richardson said. “I need something that gives me a place to go. A place to sit. A place to get away from all that noise and stuff like that.”

He says 98 percent of the Florida scrub in Pinellas County already has been developed, and this is a place worth saving.

“If all you had was a path here, and a little place to reflect, this is value to everybody who lives around here,” he said. “They don't have to drive, they save fuel, they can walk to the park. They can get that piece of mind that gives us a better quality of life.”

So Richardson said he would like to see the fate of this piece of natural Florida be like other successful crowdsourcing projects like the Gladys Douglas Hackworth property or Celery Fields in Sarasota - and not become yet another subdivision.

Map of land near the Gulf of Mexico
Google Maps
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The West Klosterman property is at the south (bottom) end of the green space on the left, bordered to the north by the Mariner's Point Management Area. Alternate U.S. 19 is to the right

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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