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Land Trust seeks to broaden conservation consensus

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of November 14, 2013)
Photo: An aerial shot of undeveloped islands in the Indian River Lagoon north of the Barber Bridge.

The Indian River Land Trust launched the public phase of its $10-million fundraising campaign with a gala event and other fanfare last week (see related story, page 23), but, surprisingly, the purpose of the new phase is not mainly to raise more money – though that is part of it.

“The goal is have every person in Indian River County know about the Land Trust and understand what our mission is,” says Director of Development Ann Taylor.

The IRLT raised nearly $9.5 million over the past several years during the silent phase of its campaign and spent almost all of the money acquiring environmentally sensitive land along the shores of the Indian River Lagoon to preserve wildlife habitat and protect water quality.

“There are still a few key pieces of property we want to put in place to complete the puzzle, but we have acquired most of the 1,000 acres of land [identified as critical habitat available for preservation],” says Executive Director Ken Grudens.

Most notably the Land Trust secured the bulk of a two-mile swath of land along the mainland shore of the lagoon that stretches north from the Barber Bridge to Grand Harbor, preserving forever the green vista people see when driving west over the Merril Barber Bridge.

It also acquired large parcels of land at Bee Gum Point, the Lagoon Greenway and an area south of Oslo Road known as the South Vero Conservation Lands.

In total, the IRLT has preserved more than eight miles of lagoon shoreline encompassing nearly 900 acres of ecologically precious land.

“In January 2009, our board recognized we had a historic opportunity to protect the lagoon and habitat near it,” says Grudens. “Because of the real estate downturn and failed developments along the water, extraordinary pieces of land were potentially available for conservation that would have been out of reach before.”

The degree of credibility and public support the Land Trust has engendered over the past five years was evident at the kick-off party, where more than $100,000 was raised in an auction-like venue, pushing the organization nearer its $10 million goal.

“I conducted the paddle raise, same as I do at many charity events,” says County Commissioner Wesley Davis, a professional auctioneer as well as an elected official.  Using his trademark auctioneering chant, Davis coaxed $120,000 from the audience in just five minutes.

“I started out asking if anyone would give $15,000 and several people raised their paddles, and then I went down to $10,000 and then, I think, to $7,500 and on down to $1,000, which is as low as we had to go. It was a unique event and a big success for the Land Trust that shows how much credibility they have.”

Taylor expects the public fundraising phase to wrap up by April, when the group holds its annual membership appreciation event. She says she will not object if the $10 million goal is exceeded.

In the meantime, she and Grudens hope to leverage the strength and momentum developed during the silent phase to expand the group’s membership “exponentially,” to integrate it more broadly and deeply into the life of the community, increasing awareness of the natural world and its benefits for human wellbeing.

To that end they are using movie trailers, print advertising, banners and other media to make Vero residents aware of what the organization is and what it has already accomplished.

“When people see what we have done, we think that is something they will want to be a part of,” says Grudens.

The Land Trust offers memberships starting at $35 and going up to $10,000, making it accessible to most residents. Dues pay ongoing expenses and support a variety of free public events that members have preferred access to. Events include guided walking and kayak tours of unique corners of the natural world.

Grudens says the Land Trust has strategy sessions planned to look ahead at what comes next for the maturing organization.

One ongoing function will be to finish developing access and maintenance plans for the properties it has acquired – which is where a flood of new members will come in handy. Taylor and Grudens think people will be attracted by the idea of helping clean up and preserve environmental treasures.

Some members may serve as guides or caretakers for certain properties while others make regular visits part of their personal or family routine, according to Grudens. He hopes that the Land Trust will be a long-term catalyst not only for preserving the lagoon but also for bringing people into greater interaction with nature.

The Land Trust was founded in 1990 to help save McKee Botanical Gardens, a 10-year, $10-million project. Following that endeavor, it was instrumental in preserving 2,000 acres of agricultural land from development. 

In 2004, it led the effort to pass a $50 million land and water protection bond issue referendum that was approved by 67 percent of voters, enabling the county to purchase a number of properties for conservation.

With land prices skyrocketing, the county rushed to buy property before it became still more expensive and ended up spending the $50 million at or near the peak of the boom.

That miscalculation on the part of the county magnifies the importance of the trust’s efforts.

“The Land Trust has taken up the cause the county had taken up when it had funding through the bond referendum,” County Environmental Planning Chief Roland DeBlois said last year. “We have pretty much run out of money and the Land Trust has become the primary agency or non-profit out there buying and conserving land these days. They are definitely filling an important need.”

“We really support what they are doing, getting private money to purchase conservation lands,” says Richard Baker, president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society. “Besides protecting water quality, the mangroves and salt marshes they are saving are critically important nurseries for game fish and without them our whole sport fishing industry will collapse.”

“They are doing a wonderful job of conserving properties that might otherwise be developed,” says Warren Falls, managing director of ORCA – the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. “By maintaining natural vegetation along the shore, they help protect the lagoon from polluted runoff. I hope they keep doing what they are doing.”