Florida: Land deal may expand state forest in Panhandle - Nature Conservancy to buy 16,652 acres to connect wildlife corridor

By The Associated Press
Florida Capital News

Florida - 3/13/03 - A private conservation group is negotiating with International Paper Co. to purchase 16,652 acres of land that would connect state and federally owned woodlands in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to create an uninterrupted wildlife corridor.

The acreage would be paid for through the Florida Forever program. The land would be added to the 190,000-acre Blackwater River State Forest, linking it with the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama and Eglin Air Force Base's 464,000-acre military reservation.

The Nature Conservancy is seeking two tracts, both owned mainly by International Paper. One totals about 12,000 acres nine miles east of Milton and stretching north from the Yellow River - Eglin's northwest boundary - to the state forest. The second covers some 4,600 acres within the state forest's present boundaries extending north to the state line.

Purchase of the "Yellow River Ravines" might protect native plants and animals, and provide more public land for picnics, camping, hiking and horseback riding, forest officials said.

It would preserve migration paths and land inhabited by protected species such as the red- cockaded woodpecker and the Florida black bear.

"One of the largest populations of black bears in the state of Florida is centered at Eglin," said Vernon Compton, project manager for the Nature Conservancy.

Florida's Acquisition and Restoration Council last year designated the proposal as a high-priority project, giving state officials the green light to negotiate a deal, said John Browne, a Division of Forestry acquisition specialist.

Nature Conservancy officials said no price has been agreed upon and they are unsure how long negotiations will take. The estimated tax value is $12.2 million. The purchase would have to be approved by Gov. Jeb. Bush and the Florida Cabinet.


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