Forty years ago, before the arrival of the outlet mall, the ice skating complex and thousands of homes, Ellenton had not a single stoplight and more alligators than people. Christine Johnson grew up there, along the Manatee River. When she wanted to see friends, she jumped into her jon boat and headed down river.
“They say what you remember most are the smells,” Johnson recalls. “In those days, everything smelled like orange blossoms from all the citrus groves.”
It was the 1970s, and a rumble of bulldozers and cement trucks on the horizon, where workers were extending Interstate 75 south from Tampa through Manatee and Sarasota counties, portended what was coming.
Today, the Ellenton of Johnson’s childhood has all but disappeared, as have the untamed places of so much of Manatee and Sarasota counties. Instead of ruing what has been lost, however, Johnson, a fifth-generation Floridian, has dedicated her career to preserving what remains.
Johnson, 49, is president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. Headquartered at Bay Preserve in a Greek Revival mansion on five acres in Osprey overlooking Sarasota Bay, the foundation in less than 15 years has emerged as perhaps the area’s most consequential environmental organization. Working in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties, the foundation has preserved 15.2 square miles, more than 9,725 acres, of the region’s most sensitive land and habitat.
Its efforts are as small, but critical, as an acre on Siesta Key, which provides habitat for the imperiled snowy plover, a bird species whose population numbers just 400. The only known successful fledgling anywhere in Florida of a snowy plover in 2016 took place on the Siesta Key site.
Others of its efforts are vast. One of the foundation’s biggest acquisitions came last year, when it purchased the 1,143-acre Triangle Ranch bordering Myakka State Park. The foundation plans to restore the ranch’s Tatum Sawgrass marsh, a vital habitat for 120 bird and animal species, including the endangered Florida panther. In describing the importance of the acquisition, the foundation noted that the Tatum Sawgrass marsh is one of four depression marshes in the Myakka River valley (the others being Flatford Swamp, Upper and Lower Myakka Lakes) and the least protected. The marshes are responsible for the Myakka River’s water quality, flood protection and biodiversity.
As the new year dawned, an even bigger prize finally seems within the foundation’s sight: the 5,774-acre Orange Hammock Ranch in North Port. The land was twice purchased by developers earlier this century, but both projects went bankrupt during the Great Recession. The foundation stepped in, working with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Sarasota County Commission, which in November voted unanimously to make purchasing the land the county’s top priority. In addition to providing habitat for wildlife, the Orange Hammock Ranch is the source for much of the growing city of North Port’s water supply.
Jon Thaxton, a former Sarasota County Commissioner and a longtime environmental leader, says he has been working for 26 years to preserve Orange Hammock Ranch, which he calls “the single most important piece of environmental land left in private ownership in Sarasota County. No other piece really compares to this.” Thaxton says if the acquisition can be completed, it will be the final piece in the 120,000-acre “Myakka island” that includes the Triangle Ranch, Myakka State Park, Carlton Preserve and other properties.
“Sarasota will forever be renowned for this,” Thaxton says. “You’re talking about preserving the drinking water supply for North Port, providing clean water for the estuaries, habitat for wildlife, recreational opportunities for future generation. You just can’t overestimate its importance.”
Thaxton credits Johnson and her colleagues at the foundation for having the vision and the “stick-to-it-ness” to keep fighting for the acquisition for years. Eileen Scudder-Zimmermann, who chairs the foundation’s board, echoes Thaxton’s praise: “Christine and her colleagues are just tenacious. They keep fighting because they believe so much in what they are fighting for.”
Johnson, in turn, says she has been inspired by one of Thaxton’s favorite sayings: “We are the last generation who can save this land. We have to do it.” She notes that Sarasota County’s population of 400,000 could swell to 1.9 million if all the land zoned for housing in the county’s comprehensive plan is developed.
“Can you imagine that?” Johnson says from her office overlooking Sarasota Bay. “That’s why we are in a race against time. But the great thing about what we do is that the land we acquire is protected forever. We put in place conservation easements, meaning it can never be developed.”
Florida natives such as Johnson and Thaxton have seen the toll decades of growth have taken on the state’s environment. But it was an outsider, a New York transplant named Albert Joerger, who founded the organization and guided its development.
Joerger, who has a doctorate degree in environmental information science and worked for the Nature Conservancy, had been a part-time resident at a family home on Casey Key. When he and his family moved down permanently in 2003, housing growth was shifting into high gear, and Joerger says he was struck by how often conversations at dinner parties and other gatherings turned to controlling growth and protecting the environment.
So Joerger took action, raising $500,000, which he intended to give to a venture philanthropist for land conservation. But he said he couldn’t find anyone locally who fit the bill, so he decided to form his own land trust, the county’s first, naming it the Sarasota Conservation Foundation.
“He was a strategic thinker with a vision on what he wanted to accomplish and how to get there,” recalls Dr. Harold L. Johnson, a founding board member and the brother-in-law of Christine Johnson.
The foundation established itself with projects such as turning a parking lot into a small urban park in downtown Venice. With the help of a $6.6 million grant from Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program, the foundation acquired its five-acre headquarters along Little Sarasota Bay. The property not only protects public access to the bay, but has housing for offices, artists in residence and nature programs for children and teens.
As the foundation grew, it expanded its reach to four counties: Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee. It also aimed beyond the coastlines to protect vital interior land, particularly along the Myakka River. And its name changed to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.
Joerger recalls the challenges of the early years. “You’d take a pen out of the supply cabinet and ask yourself, ‘How much money did we raise today? Can we afford that pen?’” he says. “It was hard work, but exciting.”
Joerger, who now works in high-end real estate for Keller Williams, left the foundation in 2012. “For an organization to be successful, the founder needs to move on,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we accomplished. We not only conserved land, we built a community of conservationists.”
The foundation board undertook a national search to find Joerger’s successor, a search that ended with the selection of Johnson, who had worked for the Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida and Ringling College as director of development.
“We were a young organization, at a crossroads,” says Scudder-Zimmermann, the board leader. “We no longer had our founder, who we had looked to so much for direction. But Christine turned out to be just what we needed. She is highly intelligent and a visionary who looks at the long-term picture.”
Johnson’s experience working with donors was vital, because Florida was going through a major shift in protecting public lands. From the late 1960s through the early 2000s, the state was the national leader, spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually from real estate taxes through a program that became known as Florida Forever. But when the Great Recession struck and the state faced a huge budget shortfall, the Legislature cut off the spigot.
In 2014, voters made clear that such funding should be restored, with 75 percent voting for Amendment One, which dedicated 30 percent of proceeds from the state’s real estate document stamps to fund land acquisition and protection. But much to the ire of environmental leaders, in 2015 the Legislature approved just a little over $15 million for land acquisition out of $740 million raised from the collection of real estate transaction taxes that was mandated to go to environmental programs, according to Lloyd Dunkelberger, a former Sarasota Herald-Tribune political reporter who has covered the Legislature for more than 30 years.
In addition, more than $80 million was allocated to protecting the state’s springs and restoring the Everglades. But environmental groups say that more than $230 million was diverted for salaries and other expenses never mandated by the amendment. Conservation groups have sued the state, seeking to force the Legislature to use the tax money for land acquisition and preservation.
In the meantime, however, the sharp decline in state support has required nonprofit groups like the Conservation Foundation to find alternative ways to acquire land. The challenge has grown even more difficult because development has rebounded and land prices are soaring.
Wealthy donors have stepped in to fill the gap. A $3 million gift from Elizabeth Moore, the largest ever to the foundation by an individual donor, was instrumental in preserving Triangle Ranch.
“Universities ask donors for money and offer to put their names on a building,” Johnson says. “We ask for their help to preserve our most important natural resources for future generations. We are lucky that people here understand that and have been very generous.”
The foundation has also found success working with local water districts, which have received state funding that environmentalists contend should have gone to Florida Forever. The water districts, like the Conservation Foundation, share the goal of sustaining clean and abundant water for the growing state.
These days, with a $1 million annual budget, a full-time staff of eight and a string of successful acquisitions, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast is planning its next chapter. Scudder-Zimmermann says an area of emphasis will be reaching out to the public, getting young people involved in conservation and making sure that the lands acquired by the foundation are accessible to citizens.
Johnson points to a nature program for schoolchildren the foundation runs at its bayfront campus, exposing young people, some for the first time, to the natural wonders that Johnson herself took for granted growing up along the Manatee River. One student from Sarasota, who had lived here all her life, had never stepped into Little Sarasota Bay. Another had never seen an alligator.
“We want to help inspire the next generation of environmental leaders,” Johnson says. “It really is a noble cause.”
Want to assist the Conservation Foundation’s goals? Head to conservationfoundation.com to find out how.