State finalizes panhandle land deal

Florida has closed on a $9.47 million deal to buy just over 3,600 acres that will be part of a state wildlife corridor in Santa Rosa County.

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The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced Tuesday it finalized the acquisition, which will link Blackwater River State Forest and state-owned conservation lands buffering Whiting Field Naval Air Station.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet --- Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis --- approved spending the money to buy the land on May 29. The purchase is expected to be offset by $2.9 million from the federal Forest Legacy Program and another $1.8 million from the private Knobloch Family Foundation, according to state paperwork when the Cabinet approved the project.

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A Department of Environmental Protection news release said the acquisition will expand hiking, fishing and camping opportunities while helping to restore a native longleaf pine forest, which should provide additional habitat for threatened and endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, Florida black bear and gopher tortoise.

“Longleaf pine forests are one of the most threatened and ecologically diverse ecosystems in the world, and the protection of this additional acreage will protect critical habitat and allow Santa Rosa County residents and visitors opportunities for recreational access,” Doug Hattaway, senior project manager for Trust for Public Land, said in a prepared statement.