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Lee County celebrates 20/20 milestone

By Staff | Mar 12, 2020

When Lee County launched the Conservation 20/20 land acquisition program in 1996, few thought that it would eventually come to acquire more than 30,000 acres for residents to enjoy and animals to thrive in their natural habitats.

On Tuesday, county officials and environmentalists gathered at Prairie Pines Preserve in North Fort Myers to celebrate that very milestone with a ribbon-cutting for a program that has had overwhelming support from residents, regardless of political affiliation. Conservation 20/20 was extended in 2016 by a nearly 6-to-1 voter margin.

Today, there are 49 Conservation 20/20 preserves totaling 30,225 acres, with the largest being the Bob Janes Preserve at 5,620 acres. Prairie Pines has the longest marked trail system of all 20/20 preserves.

Four of the five county commissioners were there (Brian Hamman is still recovering from an appendectomy), with Frank Mann bringing his guitar along for a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.”

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said he has supported all the sites brought to the commissioners and that his family are regular visitors.

“Every weekend, me and my family are out of these properties to enjoy. Land is a scarce commodity here, so we’re going to do as much as we can to get the large parcels like we did with the Larry Kiker Preserve with 4,000 acres,” Pendergrass said.

Commissioner John Manning was on the BOCC when Conservation 20/20 was approved and had hoped it would be as successful as it has become.

“Getting 30,000 acres in my lifetime is an achievement. I’m very pleased,” Manning said.

Rae Ann Wessel, of the Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation, was also involved in convincing the county to set money aside for conservation land.

“A small group of us 27 years ago gathered our forces to commit the county to a larger conservation percentage. We had the lowest percentage at 8 percent of all the Gulf Coast counties,” Wessel said. “Today is exciting because we’ve had two referendum ordinances passed and the public needs to understand that a small group of us can make something happen.”

The celebration also featured Assistant County Manager Glen Salyer, who thanked those county representatives who work on these lands all year, from Parks & Recreation to County Lands and Natural Resources.

“In many counties across the state the federal and state governments do the heavy lifting on land acquisition. In Collier County 98 percent of its conservation lands are held by state or federal government,” Salyer said. “In Lee County, it’s closer to 50 percent, which means you have to do the heavy lifting. We rank in the top five of all counties for conservation lands held by the local government.”

Bill Hammond, another founding father of Conservation 20/20, said the county is about halfway to where it needs to be.

“We need more than 30,000 more acres based on science and economic studies,” Hammond said. “It was one of the initiatives that led to Six Mile Cypress and the whole Conservation 20/20 program for Lee County’s quality and economic vitality.”

The county is celebrating March with dozens of events highlighting the Conservation 20/20 program.

Other activities include displays in the libraries, talks and presentations at the libraries from 20/20 staff and Natural Resources staff, guided kayak trips, nature hikes, and walks through a controlled burn and more.

For more on all March Conservation 20/20 events go to www.leegov.com/2020celebration