Last month 25 local, regional, and national conservation and environmental groups gathered in Gainesville, Florida with representatives of government agencies and foundations for a “Nature Coast Strategy Gathering” to begin more coordinated efforts to protect and preserve Florida’s Nature Coast. Organizations attending the event included plenty of GRN member groups and friends such as Citrus County Council, Homosassa River Alliance, Save Our Suwannee, Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, Gulf Coast Conservancy, Naturecoast Sierra Club, Alachua Audubon Society, Putnam Land Conservancy, Nature Coast Conservancy, Withlacoochee Area Residents, Wild Florida Adventures, The Conservation Fund, Environmental Alliance of North Florida, Audubon of Florida, Florida Panther Society, The Gulf of Mexico Foundation, TOO FAR, SouthWings, Nature Coast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club, Southeast Environmental Institute, and Florida Defenders of the Environment.The Nature Coast, one of Florida’s longest natural coastlines, stretches from just north of Tampa Bay to the Florida Panhandle. It represents one of Florida’s most wild, undeveloped, and pristine coastlines and is defined by spring fed rivers, coastal marshes and wetlands, seagrass beds, and coastal hammocks. As more coastal habitat for marine and coastal species is lost across Florida and the Gulf, the Nature Coast increasingly becomes more important for recreational and commercial fish species, marine mammals, sea turtles, and migratory birds.”Florida’s Nature Coast is one of our best chances in the Gulf of Mexico region to protect and preserve a mostly intact, wild coastline. We need to be thinking in terms of future generations and the environmental legacy we are leaving them.” said Caroline Douglas of SouthWings, one of the organizations sponsoring the event. “SouthWings works across the southeastern U.S. to help conservation groups educate the public about our environment, and this is as good as it gets in terms of opportunities to work together for a long-term healthy relationship between people and the planet that sustains us.” While much of the Nature Coast is either undeveloped or conserved as public lands, increasing pressure from mining and development proposals is encouraging conservation groups from across the state to work together to ensure that this slice of old and wild Florida is not lost to the dredge or to the bulldozer.Personally, I am thankful that so much of the Nature Coast is protected as public lands. Now we must work to connect those places with wildlife corridors and ensure what is in public ownership is well managed. We have got to draw a line in the sand and fight poorly planned or destructive projects that threaten the Nature Coast. The threat is real and growing, and the bulldozers are at the gates of Eden.It was great to see residents and advocates from as far away as Tampa and Tallahassee spent time working together to develop plans for conserving the Nature Coast, and hear presentations from experts at the University of Florida who discussed water and land issues in the Nature Coast. Prof. Christine Klein, of the University of Florida College of Law, shared information with the group about the future of water law and policy in Florida. Dr. Tom Hoctor, of the University of Florida Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning, updated those gathered on the latest work to connect large areas of public lands in the Nature Coast, and on efforts to protect Florida Black Bears in the region.One theme that emerged throughout the day was the need for conservation groups to work with diverse stakeholders including hunters, recreational and commercial fisherman, tour operators, local business owners, chambers of commerce, and those in the aquaculture or agriculture fields to link a sustainable economy with sustainable management and use of natural resources. In the Nature Coast the environment is the economy, and protecting natural systems ensures future generations have both clean air and water, and a chance for a sustainable economy.Wildlife and landscape photographer Eric Zamora, who recently finished a 100 mile canoe trip to explore and photograph the Nature Coast , shared a series of incredible and moving photo images with the group to capture the magnificence and majesty of the natural areas along the Nature Coast. Zamora is beginning the planning and groundwork for an ambitious undertaking in 2010, “Life on the Edge” which will include him canoeing and exploring over 250 miles of the greater Nature Coast.”I am from north central Florida, so the Nature Coast is very special to me,” Zamora said. “Being able to hike, boat and fly over the Nature Coast, working to ensure it is protected from unsustainable development, is a dream come true. But it is vital that the scenes I have photographed and my experiences are shared with a broader audience for my work to have meaning. The story of the Nature Coast must be known.” This gathering was one of the first steps in a growing and exciting effort to unite communities and organizations along the Nature Coast to work together to oppose projects that threaten the Nature Coast and proactively work together to protect the region and expand the eco-tourism and sustainable natural resource economy in the region. Organizers and attendees plan to formalize a coalition, develop and launch a website, host a large conference in the next year to bring statewide attention to the Nature Coast, and to work more closely together to share resources to protect the region.Joe Murphy is the GRN’s Florida Coordinator

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