Former Audubon pres: Group’s action a gut punch to the cause of conservation | Guest Commentary

Posted on June 1, 2023

Your recent story and editorial regarding the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society’s decision to sell off a nature preserve was a punch to the stomach to all who truly care about protection of our special places. The combined work of public agencies, conservation organizations and private philanthropy has set Florida apart as a leader in land conservation even as our state grows by leaps and bounds. Each acre that we preserve is an acre that won’t be the next gas station or fast food restaurant contributing to our cancerous urban sprawl.


The shameful action of this local groupbetrays the trust of the donor and creates doubt that lands and resources contributed to conservation organizations can be sold off or diverted to other purposes. Private philanthropy has been a bedrock of the conservation movement in Florida and across the country. The donation of a portion of Royal Palm Hammock by Mary Flagler in 1916 ultimately became part of Everglades National Park. The gift of John Roebling of Highland Hammock became Florida’s first state park. More recently M.C. Davis spent millions of his own dollars to preserve nearly 100,000 acres in north Florida, including Nokuse Plantation. In 2020, Elizabeth DeLuca donated 27,000 acres to the University of Florida and Trout Unlimited, the state’s largest single conservation donation, to protect vital habitat for the endangered grasshopper sparrow.

Recently the National Audubon Society has gone through a gut-wrenching evaluation of whether it should retain the appellation of its namesake John James Audubon. They ultimately concluded that the name “Audubon” was a trusted brand, now synonymous with conservation. For more than a century it has stood for protection of birds, wildlife, and habitat. Here in Florida, the state organization now called Audubon Florida has held donations of conservation lands for over 100 years. Before there were state or federal wildlife officers, early Audubon wardens were killed in the line of duty protecting special areas. The organization holds many sanctuaries, large and small, across Florida as a special trust for those individuals who selflessly donated those lands for the benefit of generations yet to come.

The Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society has violated that sacred trust. It has also violated its own charter. Its Articles of Incorporation state its purpose: To “promote the protection and preservation of natural resources including the encouragement, establishment, and maintenance of nature sanctuaries,” and further “promote the preservation of tracts of natural lands particularly in or near urban areas.”

Equally appalling, the governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District also contributed to this breach. To ensure that this land would be conserved in perpetuity, the donor also conveyed a conservation easement to the district. The district holds conservation easements covering thousands of acres across its 19 counties to protect water resources and habitat. Unfortunately, district officials released this easement from their protection and have recently demonstrated a willingness to release some conservation lands. This further erodes trust in our land conservation programs.

OVAS needs to step back and ponder the ripple effect of its decision to turn a nature preserve into the next convenience store. Failing that, it should remove “Audubon” from its name, as its actions jeopardize the reputation of Florida’s oldest conservation organization, and could lead potential conservation donors to rethink their plans.


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