St. Lucie scooping up conservation properties

Leveraging various grants and other funding sources, St. Lucie County’s Environmental Resources department has snapped up $80 million worth of conservation and recreation lands over the years – and it’s not done yet.

The county was recently reimbursed nearly $2 million from the Florida Communities Trust for the county’s purchase of two properties in 2015, at about the same time the state paused allocating grants for such purchases. This year, though, the legislature reinstated the grant program and awarded St. Lucie County a grant retroactively. Now, land managers hope to acquire a few more parcels of environmentally sensitive land in the near future.

Natural Resources Manager Mike Middlebrook said he expects the county to continue leveraging its funds – multiplying them with 50 percent grants. He said he hopes to turn the nearly $2 million in the county’s environmentally sensitive land account into $4 million.

In 1994, St. Lucie County voters approved taxing themselves to fund a $20 million bond to be used for purchasing and protecting significant conservation properties. Doing so would ensure the lands would not be touched by developers – and some could be used to restore natural habitat as well as serve as passive recreational areas.

Middlebrook said the county has a lengthy “want list” of properties still in the books, waiting for the funding and a willing seller. With the state reimbursement, the site selection committee will be dusting off that list and assessing the potential for more acquisitions.

The two properties for which the state just paid St. Lucie County are Myers-Stickel Preserve and Cypress Creek Preserve. Myers-Stickel Preserve is 33 acres located near Kitterman and Oleander in White City.

The preserve protects more than 1,600 linear feet of shoreline along the North Fork of the St. Lucie River and cost the county nearly $458,000.

Plans include opening the property to the public within the next couple years. When open, it is expected to have ADA boardwalks and wilderness hiking trails, along with a nature-inspired playground, outdoor classroom, and an ADA kayak launch and stop-over.

The Cypress Creek Preserve encompasses more than 783 acres near State Road 70 and Bluefield Road. It, too, is expected to open in a couple years to the public.

Plans call for a campground, equestrian trails and connections to the State Road 70 greenway trail. Cypress Creek Preserve cost almost $3.34 million.

One of the highlights of the environmentally sensitive land acquisitions is the Blue Field Ranch, Environmental Resources Director Amy Griffin said. The ranch preserves 800 acres of the scrub land – prime habitat for the Florida scrub jay.

Scrub lands are imperiled due to their appeal to developers. Scrub land is typically high and dry, making it easy to build on – unlike wetlands, which require mitigation and a laborious permitting process.

“The success stories are all over the county,” Middlebrook said. In his opinion, one of the best purchases the county made was the Cypress Creek Preserve. “I can’t wait for it to open to the public,” he said.

To highlight the properties that taxpayers helped purchase, the county routinely offers free, guided hikes within the various preserves. Hikes are usually limited to 15 people, helping to allow participants to immerse themselves into the county’s beautiful natural areas. Programs target those 12 and older unless otherwise noted. All minors must be accompanied by an adult. Proper footwear and water are required for all programs. No pets allowed.

The annual New Year’s Day Hike will be held at the D.J. Wilcox Preserve, 300 Michigan St., Fort Pierce, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 3 p.m. On Saturday, Jan. 5, a guided hike will be held at the Sweetwater Hammock Preserve, 4100 South 25th St. Fort Pierce, from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The hike will focus on air plants and other such botanical marvels.

On Sunday, Jan. 6, the family is invited to the Intro to Geocaching Family Hike at the Donald B. Moore Heritage Preserve, formerly known as the St. Lucie Village Preserve, located at 305 Torpey Road, Fort Pierce. The hike will run from 10 a.m. to noon.

More information:

  • Environmentally Significant Lands/County Preserves: https://www.stlucieco.gov/departments-services/a-z/environmental-resources/preserve-listing
  • Guided Nature Program Series Calendar: https://www.stlucieco.gov/departments-services/a-z/environmental-resources/guided-hikes.

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