The Florida Cabinet is moving forward with the purchase of a large parcel of land in Highlands County to ensure its preservation.
On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam authorized the $5,528,250 buy of the specified 2,457 acres of ranchland, known as the Sandy Gully property.
Funding from the state Rural and Family Lands Protection program will be used to cover the cost of the purchase. Known as a conservation easement, the buy allows agricultural operations to continue on the Sandy Gully property but restricts future development. A potential federal grant totaling $3,312,500 could help offset that cost.
Sandy Gully is a cow/calf operation. Hay and timber production are secondary operations. A former dairy farm, it shifted focus to cattle in 2002, and now run anywhere from 650 to 700 heads of cattle, according to documents from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Species of black bear and gopher tortoise — both considered rare — have been present on the property. In the past, the owners of the land also have identified sightings of sandhill cranes, bald eagles, Sherman’s fox squirrels, eastern indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and Florida panthers.
Justifying the purchase, the state believes the property could serve as a pathway for animals in between two nearby parks.
“What’s really key about [Sandy Gully] is it’s sandwiched between the Highlands County Sun N Lake Preserve and the Highlands Hammock State Park,” DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein noted to the Cabinet. “[The land] will be a pretty good corridor for the wildlife that moves along the ranch.”
As well, the Sandy Gully property is integral to some of the area’s wetland systems, according to DEP documents.
Valenstein noted to the Cabinet that the state has purchased 46 conservation easements with the addition of Sandy Gully. In total, 53,121 acres have now been preserved under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program since its creation in 2001.