The Dog Island Conservation District is at work on a deal with the family of the late Jeff Lewis to purchase an environmentally sensitive, 40-acre tract on the island to preserve it from development.
“It’s the last developable piece of land on a barrier island of that size between Alligator Point and St. Vincent Island, “ said William Stone, a member of the conservation district board who has been working with the Lewis family to hammer out a deal for the acreage.
The conservation district has under contract the acreage on the island’s northern shore, known as Tyson Harbor, for a reported $600,000 with the land trust managed by the heirs of the late Jeff Lewis, the Tallahassee businessman who acquired an interest in the island after Ivan Munroe bought it from the government for $15,000 in the 1940s.
Prior to his death in the early 1980s, Lewis sold most of the nearly 1,800-acre, seven-mile-long island to the Nature Conservancy to be kept as a wilderness preserve.
Stone said Lewis’ heirs have a similar desire to see this valuable acreage kept pristine and undisturbed.
“They were very open to our offer and to make sure (to maintain) their father’s legacy of setting land aside for conservation purposes,” he said. “They’re conservationists at heart.”
With its modest 4 mills of taxation, used to cover the cost of trash removal, maintenance and other basic infrastructure needs, the conservation district lacks the funds to cover the land purchase and has turned to the Alachua Conservation Trust to help gather private donations.
Since 2019, the non-profit Alachua group has secured two land acquisitions on the island, located about four miles off the coast from Carrabelle.
In late 2019, the Alachua trust received a donation from the Ireland and Firman families of 30 acres of beachfront and dune habitat in the western stretch of Dog Island for conservation, acreage with a 2021 taxable value of more than $700,000. That property is now maintained as the Pam Firman Preserve for coastal species and sea turtle nesting.
Erica Hernandez, conservation director for the Alachua Conservation Trust, said in Feb. 2021, the trust paid $5,000 to buy the roughly one-acre parcel where the Pelican Inn stood until it was destroyed by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“We paid back taxes and a small amount for the parcel,” she said. “There was quite a bit of debris left, concrete, wood, rebar, and it was not suitable wildlife habitat due to obstructions on the beach.”
A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, funneled through the University of Florida – IFAS Sea Grant program, helped cover the cost of removing the remains of the septic tank and completing the demolition.
“It was an elaborate process to make that happen, to restore that beach,” said Hernandez. “We got an amazing deal; we worked with someone who volunteers his time. We paid $20,000, which is incredible. We got quotes from other demolition companies that were completely cost-prohibitive.
“It’s now maintained naturally and starting to grow back, and we had sea turtle crawls,” she said.
Hernandez said the fundraising outreach is continuing for the Lewis family’s 40-acre parcel, with a $10,000 donation from a family foundation among the first to be earmarked for the purchase.
She noted that in addition to all donations being fully tax-deductible, contributors can be secure in the knowledge that projections through the year 2100 indicate the parcel will not become submerged in water as the shifting sands of the island continue to migrate northward.
“A lot of Dog Island is eroding,” Hernandez said. “It’s important to demonstrate that it’s not going to go away, that’s important to people.”
She said the Alachua group is seeking help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other private groups in finding monies.
“There’s never one source of funding,” she said. “Folks want their dollars to go further; they want to see it matched.”
Stone said the most valuable selling point to the project is that undisturbed marshland will contribute to the bay’s water quality, as well as continue to provide an ”on and off ramp” for birds migrating to South America from as far north as Nova Scotia. “To save this property will enhance their ability to thrive,” he said.
“Preserving property to preserve the bay has got to make sense for 95 percent of the people in Franklin County,” Stone said. “They want us to make sure to help the bird life that comes through. The visitors want all of that. Hopefully, setting that land aside, will in the long term keep this a healthy place for people to come visit.”