Case Studies

North Florida Land Trust – Strategic Conservation Mapping

North Florida Land Trust, founded in 1999, is a local land conservation organization focused on protecting ecologically, agriculturally, and historically significant lands. We focus on the preservation of land in Northeast Florida, and work on an as-needed based elsewhere in Florida. Throughout the years, we have protected thousands of acres of environmentally significant land.

Value of the land and habitat

Northeast Florida, locally known as the “First Coast,” is a place with a diverse set of natural and cultural resources. Within the bounds of Northeast Florida there is the oldest city in America, the most productive agricultural soils in Florida, the largest city by area in the United States, three expansive tidal estuary ecosystems, and the largest river system in Florida. There is a national estuarine research reserve, a national ecological and historic preserve, five state aquatic preserves, as well as dozens of state parks, state and national forests, and county parks. As the sole land trust operating in this service area, North Florida Land Trust is an urban, suburban and rural land trust,  which seeks to preserve significant natural, working and historic resources.

Conservation concerns

The North Florida Land Trust aims to ensure high quality conservation measures that are responsive to community needs as well as beneficial to natural environments. By assessing natural resources and their relative threats, the land trust has created regional maps indicating where to focus acquisition efforts based on organizational conservation goals. Relative threats considered by this assessment were divided and weighed by resource category, producing a map gradient that helps to identify management and acquisition priorities. Threats considered in this assessment were:

  • Sea level rise and salt water inundation; and
  • Population growth and development pressure.

It has been estimated that the population of Florida will likely double by 2060. That incredible population growth is predicted to more than double the expected urban land uses, while requiring more out of agriculture at the same time. This predicted growth is the number one threat to natural resources, and so, population growth modeling to determine land use impacts was considered. Additionally, as sea levels rise, some coastal and riparian areas will no longer be accessible. Conversely, some areas will have higher adaptive capacities and be more likely to respond to these changes. To identify and prioritize conservation in these areas, NFLT’s assessment also considered “coastal resilience”, or the capacity of the land to respond to and recover from change. See pages 52-54 of the North Florida Conservation Priorities for a detailed summary of conservation concerns.

Current protection status and management plan

The preservation of natural areas through acquisitions of land and conservation easements is the first mission of any land trust and North Florida Land Trust expects to spend the largest part of its activities on preservation.

North Florida Land Trust used North Florida Conservation Priorities to identify focus areas in our region with the highest-ranking natural resource values, now referred to as “Preservation Priority Areas.” These Preservation Priority Areas are the focus of our Preservation Portfolio. North Florida Land Trust will now concentrate its preservation efforts on the 112,000 acres of land within these Preservation Priority Areas. We are pursuing funding, engaging in outreach campaigns, and talking to landowners about the ways by which NFLT can help them preserve their land.

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Preservation Priority Areas, identified in NFLT’s Preservation Portfolio
Preservation Priority Areas, identified in NFLT’s Preservation Portfolio

Process of achieving protection and resilience to climate change

North Florida Conservation Priorities (NFCP) is more than just a map – it is an adaptable database of natural resources. This means it can stay relevant as the times change. Instead of being a static map, which will become out of date as priorities and landscapes change, all the natural resources maps that inform the NFCP can be updated as new information becomes available. For example, priority habitat maps are refined as on-the-ground biologists discover more about our area’s natural resources. Those refinements can be integrated into NFCP as they become available. Additional information can also be included as the land trust adds, changes, or drops priorities. As the effects of climate change become more and more apparent to our landscape, NFLT has added climate change as a natural resource mapping priority to the database, allowing the land trust to consider rising seas and changing ecosystems in management planning efforts.

Plans for the future

North Florida Land Trust plans to use North Florida Conservation Priorities and the Preservation Portfolio to guide their conservation efforts. These tools are optimized to guide conservation funding towards the best possible natural resources. Many of the natural resource attributes used were created directly with particular funding sources in mind. For example, a Regionally Appropriate Agriculture Parcel is a designation from the USDA’s Farms and Ranchlands Protection Program that pays for the purchase of conservation easements on high quality farmlands. Utilizing this tool, NFLT hopes to optimize the use of conservation funding opportunities available by submitting applications highlighting the best possible natural resources available.

These resources also allow staff to quickly analyze a piece of property for a wide variety of natural resource attributes. NFLT emphasizes, however, that at times practical knowledge of the surroundings or explanations from the landowner will contradict the model and that NFCP will not serve as a replacement for on-site inspections in these circumstances. NFCP is intended to be an informational, not a limiting tool.

Engaging Stakeholders

Now that a database of natural resource scores has been built, it is a more simple process to adapt those scores to meet the mission of other conservation agencies and organizations. North Florida Land Trust hopes to work with other organizations to re-prioritize the natural resource attributes according to their missions and help them develop a prioritized map of their own for increased conservation efficacy. NFLT hopes not only to do this for their own operating area but now that the process for development of conservation prioritization has been refined, to help outside conservation groups and agencies develop it for other regions in the state. For example, NFLT has partnered with the Indian River Land Trust and the Treasured Lands Foundation in South Florida to create new strategic conservation plans that prioritize acquisition and management efforts.

Key Partners

Key partners that have supported the NFCP tool development include:

  • NFLT Volunteers and Interns that supported GIS project work, and
  • Representatives from resource agencies, county offices, and related non-profit staff, including:
    • Fish and Wildlife Commission
    • Department of Environmental Protection
    • Florida Natural Areas Inventory
    • University of Florida
    • Fish and Wildlife Service
    • St. Johns Water Management District
    • Natural Resources Conservation Service

Lessons Learned

  • Modeling provides valuable insights! NFLT has learned a great deal from doing this kind of analysis, including: what expectations were met, what surprises were found, and where the model’s deficiencies lie.
  • Strategic management planning helps identify conservation and acquisition priorities. Though NFLT has worked or attempted to work everywhere within its operating area in the past, its focus has been predominantly those natural resource amenities easily accessible to the Jacksonville metropolitan area. That makes sense in terms of doing preservation accessible to the largest population, but not necessarily in terms of protecting the highest quality resources. Resources in urban areas tend to be under the greatest threat; however, they are also the most difficult to protect with the tools the land trust has available. Also, even though rural resources are the farthest from urbanized development, the can still be subject to human influences, which can be nearly as destructive as development: mineral and water extraction, irresponsible farming and forestry, and other rural land uses can just as easily destroy a resource. With this new information, prioritization based on NFCP will guide NFLT decision making in the future.
  • Mapping and strategic planning can help galvanize conservation work. Through the NFCP, NFLT achieved tangible reaffirmations of the significance of the work the organization has done in the past, as well as a decision-making support tool ensuring the land trust’s limited resources are invested in the right properties moving forward. Additionally, by organizing a strategic conservation plan with partner input, NFLT’s program goals resulting from that plan often became the goals of their partners as well, creating a more unified and well-informed front for conservation efforts throughout North Florida.