May 16, 2016|By Kendra Briechle| Community Development

For many people, Florida is synonymous with beaches, theme parks and retirement communities. However, I picture a different scene when I think of the Sunshine State. The Big Bend region (located at the “elbow” from the Panhandle to the peninsula on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast) offers a wonderful panorama of the natural beauty of Florida. Its expansive salt marshes, freshwater springs, rich fisheries, towering pine forests, wide-open ranches and farmland display the pristine and largely unspoiled quality of this sizable region of Florida.

Big Bend p. 23 -Shired Isl after the storm LSNWR Dixie CtyShired Island after the storm at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge in Dixie County, Florida. Photo by George Willson.

Big Bend’s contrast to the rest of Florida is both incongruous and yet brimming with environmental and economic promise. It is rural, with a declining population that's aging faster, and with higher poverty and lower educational levels. Yet, leaders and residents value the unique nature and culture of their region. The Big Bend region's natural resources are important both because of their ecologic value—the health of the forests, lands, and fresh and salt water—and their economic contributions, which total a quarter of the area's economic output. The region is dominated by natural resource-related manufacturing, plus forestry, farming (including aquaculture), eco-tourism, and commercial fishing and hunting. The Big Bend counties (Dixie, Jefferson, Levy, and Taylor) are part of the Southeast's "woodbasket"—the working forestlands that are essential for clean drinking water and overall economic and ecological health. Across the U.S., nearly 45 million acres of these forests are at risk of being lost to development. The protection of these working forests is one of the highest priorities for The Conservation Fund.

Big Bend p. 16 use this working forest Charlie HouderWorking forests of the Big Bend region. Photo by Charlie Houder.

That's why we forged a collaborative initiative across several our strengths at the Fund, drawing on the expertise of our Florida field office, our Working Forest Fund, and our Conservation Leadership Network (CLN). Our work in Big Bend—in close collaboration with residents and local leaders—has focused on highlighting the contributions of the natural resource economy. Local leaders are embracing the choices for sustaining and enhancing their economic future, preserving their way of life, and ensuring that nature works for the area. The region is attracting the attention of outside interests, ranging from produce companies drawn to the waters of the Suwannee River and other clean coastal rivers to development companies seeking the next frontier for new towns.

We started by sitting down with county leaders to talk about conducting an economic analysis of the region with the help of Southwick Associates, a renowned natural resource analyst. The results demonstrated the central role that natural resource industries play in the area and underscored how the health and continued productivity of the natural resource base are critical to the region's economic future.

Big Bend p. 20 rec fishing silhoutte crop alvaradoSport fishing is a large draw for the Big Bend region in Florida. Photo by Jenny Alvarado.

Recognizing the importance of being adaptable to the region's needs, CLN engaged with a broad range of local leaders to identify ideas that can best capitalize on the results of the economic analysis. A frequent partner in our work with communities, economist Steve Morse, has pointed out that one of the unique qualities of CLN is its ability to "frame the questions for communities to shape their future." Rather than ride in with preconceived notions of what a community should do, we listen, discuss, engage, and involve local leaders to develop and implement on-the-ground solutions. The result in Big Bend has been the creation of a seed grant process, inviting collaborative proposals for on-the-ground projects that would advance the economic and ecological health of the area.

Big Bend 1-Sturmer w Mike Hodges of Hodges Seafood Co UF IFASShellfish Aquaculture Extension Agent Leslie Sturmer talks with Mike Hodges of Hodges Seafood Company about Cedar Key oysters. Photo courtesy University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

In November 2015, The Conservation Fund announced the award of more than $85,000 in seed grants to five projects that leveraged an additional $240,000 from other funding sources. The awardees included:

  • The College of Central Florida for workforce training of timber industry contractors. 
  • The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to develop and market nature-based itineraries for wildlife watching.
  • The Levy County Board of Commissioners to develop a Big Bend Shellfish Trail Map.
  • The Cedar Key Oysterman's Association and Suwannee Oyster Association for the rehabilitation of the Suwannee Sound oyster population and fishery.
  • The Nature Coast Biological Station to undertake a tagging study ensuring sustainable harvests of spotted seatrout.
Big Bend Q01 4307Researchers from Nature Coast Biological Station (founded by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) are tagging and releasing spotted seatrout as part of their research study funded by The Conservation Fund. Photo by Jenny Alvarado.

These five seed grant projects underway, and we look forward to reporting on their successes by the end of 2016. Our hope is that the seed grants and overall initiative will serve as a catalyst for collaborative efforts that sustain the natural resources and economic benefits so critical to the area's future.

Make sure to check back next Monday for an in-depth look at the spotted seatrout tagging project written by Jack Payne, leader of University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.