Alachua County has bought a 111-acre forest to protect it from becoming a land development in the future.
County officials and The Alachua Conservation Trust, Inc. — a group dedicated to protecting natural, historic, scenic and recreational resources in north-central Florida — purchased the Serenola Forest for $3.2 million on Dec. 6, said the Alachua Conservation Trust Executive Director Tom Kay. The forest is located between Williston Road and the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
Compared to its 21,000-acre neighbor, Paynes Prairie, the forest isn’t big, but Kay said the new infrastructure will make the land a buffer area for terrestrial wildlife when they lose their habitats.
“With the water level fluctuating, it’s nice to have a place where wildlife can retreat and not have to worry about their home being turned into a subdivision or more student housing,” Kay said.
The county purchased the land through the Alachua County Forever program, which used more than $2.9 million to purchase 103 acres, Kay said. The funds were generated from the Wild Places & Public Spaces half-cent sales tax, which was approved by voters in 2016.
Alachua Conservation Trust raised more than $300,000 to purchase the remaining acres, Kay said. It ran the Save Serenola Forest campaign and received donations as large as $100,000. The campaign started in September and hit its goal near Christmas. This funding was one of the driving factors that allowed the deal to go through.
“The way the community came together was amazing,” he said.
Fifty acres of the land has never been developed, and the rest has old construction debris and about 2.5 miles of hiking trails, some of which has been there for years, Kay said.
Alachua Conservation Trust will manage the project and put in new infrastructure, he said. The existing infrastructure will be used as a base to build off of.
Kay said Alachua Conservation Trust is hoping to open the forest to the public by April and will begin construction in February. The forest will feature information kiosks, trails compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, bike racks, parking off of Williston Road, an observation platform, picnic tables and benches.
Kay said the Alachua Conservation Trust hopes the success of the project inspires others to continue working on similar issues.
“The biggest takeaway is how successful it was because of people’s persistence,” Kay said. “I hope people will love it.”
Pablo Luna, a 19-year-old UF biomedical engineering freshman, said he’s excited to explore the Serenola Forest to find new hiking spots and a place to hang his hammock.
“For parks, all I want is clear paths and pavilions,” Luna said.