Lisa Molitor Gearen: Renew Alachua County Forever

Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of my generation is this: we behave as if we are always going to be here. But like everyone who has come before and all who will follow, our time here is finite.

Thinking about one's legacy usually comes later in life, and sometimes it does not come at all. But sooner or later, most of us become aware that a legacy is the only meaningful testament to the lives we have led, our values, our relationships, our faith and our love for our children.

While we generally think in terms of personal legacy, here in Alachua County we have a unique opportunity to shape the common legacy of an entire community. We have the chance to protect forever the exquisite natural environment that we call our home.

In November 2000, a 60 percent majority of voters decided to use the proceeds from a 0.25 mil self-imposed property levy to create a program that has made, on our common behalf, the most important investment of all. Called "Alachua County Forever" (ACF), it has leveraged the purchasing power of

$23 million so effectively that land valued at $63 million has been purchased and protected forever. For the last seven

years, the average out-of-pocket investment of $25 a year, individual property owners in our community have pooled their resources to forever protect our estate and to insure our legacy.

More than 11,000 acres, comprised of 17 different parcels, are held in the ACF portfolio. This widely respected program represents the public's first phase of investment in a healthy environmental future. Places like Barr Hammock, Watermelon Pond, and Lake Alto will be forever preserved in their current states.

While ACF represents the public commitment to this idea of land protection, private land trusts working in the area have gathered similar momentum, and have made enormous progress through parallel efforts. Often partnering with the ACF program, the Alachua Conservation Trust and the Conservation Trust of Florida have established themselves as trustworthy and respected private, not-for-profit organizations that have participated in the protection of almost 20,000 additional acres of wild and working lands over the last 20 years. The synergy between these public and private programs has been exemplary.

The guarantee of perpetual wildlife habitat, preservation of esthetic value and increased adjacent property values are all direct benefits of land conservation. In the long run, though, the protection of the land's capacity for water collection and recharge may be the single most important dividend on our investment. Florida's water defines it and the lifestyle of the humans living here.

The experience of south Florida's widespread loss of wild lands and water flow destruction, and that of many urban areas to our north, offer real-time evidence of what happens when open, natural spaces are not protected and the water cycle is destroyed.

Forest and wild lands are critical components of the water cycle. Wild vegetation, especially our tree canopy, forms an enormous net that captures water, stores it and returns it to the atmosphere. Percolation and streaming through undisturbed, large tracts of varied soils make recharge of our underground water sources possible.

Wholesale conversion of natural open space lands to human use, without regard for the natural environment, inevitably disrupts the water cycle. As we have seen here and across the planet, economic, social and health havoc is the result.

Given the many problems that we face locally and nationally, is land conservation a priority? Yes, absolutely. Doubtless we face enormous challenges in north central Florida over the next decade and effective response to those challenges will be expensive. Infrastructure investment will command our attention and commitment.

Learning to distinguish between uncontrolled growth and sustained prosperity will require thoughtful debate, planning and action. Coping with climate change and moving toward a green ethic, as a matter of survival, will be critical.

Building a local economy that does all of the above and provides opportunities for our children and their children will perhaps be our most important responsibility. And yet, our primary obligation is to first protect the life support system that makes all of this possible - our environment. Indeed, the deteriorating health of our Earth over the last decade

suggests this is more than an obligation, it is a requirement.

Put simply, life as we know it is not possible without the balancing and restorative functions of natural, wild and open lands in large, uninterrupted tracts.

By law, funding for the ACF Program, Phase I, is almost complete. Sometime soon, voters in Alachua County will be given the opportunity to renew their commitment to investment in our future. With buyer's market conditions in a very favorable state, thousands of additional acres have been nominated for protection and are available for purchase from willing landowners. In terms of return on investment, this is a deal we cannot pass up.

As much as we will benefit in our lifetimes, it is a legacy whose full value cannot be calculated until long after we are gone.

Lisa Molitor Gearen is a native Floridian who has lived in Gainesville since 1973. She is a nurse practitioner at the ACORN Clinic in Brooker.

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