Conservancy supports one citizen’s efforts to preserve a priceless piece of natural Florida
By Gladys Delgadillo | Conservancy Environmental Policy Specialist
Late May of 2019, Karen Willden approached the Conservancy. A fiery woman, determined that her father’s legacy not be spoiled by development, Karen wanted to know how she might conserve the land she inherited.
Luckily for Karen, the Willden property was located within the coveted bounds of the Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods Florida Forever project, adjacent to the Yucca Pens Unit of the Fred C. Babcock/ Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area (Babcock/Webb WMA), and within the Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods Initiative (CHFI) restoration area. This meant the State had already identified the area as a priority for conservation.
The Conservancy worked with Ms. Willden to sell her property to the State, via the Florida Forever program. On January 24, 2020, the deal was finalized and 130 acres of environmentally sensitive land was added to Florida’s natural treasury. This land will now be preserved in perpetuity and will be managed to provide significant benefits to water quality, wildlife habitat, and the local community.
The CHFI is a multi-agency restoration project aiming to restore local hydrology. Goals include enhancing dry season freshwater flows to Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosahatchee Estuary, reducing peak discharges to the Caloosahatchee River in the wet season, and reducing flooding in North Fort Myers. The Willden parcel contains 84 acres of wetlands and 49 acres of uplands in an important location to enable this restoration project to move forward.
This location also provides high-quality habitat. The Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods Florida Forever project contains, “the largest and highest-quality slash-pine flatwoods left in Southwest Florida .” This habitat is home to roseate spoonbills, black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, bald eagles, eastern indigo snakes, and even the occasional Florida panther. You can also find a globally imperiled plant, the Beautiful Pawpaw, within the project boundaries.
The property will be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of the Yucca Pens Unit of the Babcock/Webb WMA. This allows for public recreational opportunities from hiking and wildlife watching to hunting.
In addition to pursuing the sale of her property through the State acquisition process, Karen also encouraged the conservation of neighboring parcels. This year, the Florida Division of State Lands, within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), was able to purchase a total of 340 acres in the area — and others are in process.
As a native Floridian, Karen remarked that she’d witnessed with anguish how Southwest Florida’s environment has changed since the ’60s. It brings her peace to know her plot of land will remain a refuge for Florida’s native flora and fauna in our changing world. In an email to the Conservancy, Karen wrote, “Conservation and Preservation of Wild Florida has been what I feel is the best I could do for the state where I was born.” We are extremely grateful to Karen for her dedication to seeing her land protected, and for the legacy she leaves to honor Florida and all Floridians. We also thank the staff at the FDEP for helping to make Karen’s dream of preserving a piece of wild Florida a reality.
 Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “2020 Florida Forever Five-Year Plan.” As approved by Board of Trustees Internal Improvement Trust Fund May 28, 2020. P. 164. Available at http://publicfiles.dep.state.fl.us/DSL/FFWeb/Current%20Florida%20Forever%20Five-Year%20Plan.pdf