St. Augustine launches new conservation program

Eye-level view of Fish Island Preserve in St. Augustine, Fla. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Augustine.

By Chloe Smith

The City of St. Augustine’s new conservation program aims to protect the city’s natural areas and resources through land acquisition. By addressing common misconceptions about land use and Florida’s ecosystem, program leaders hope to improve community health and resiliency. 

“A lot of people think of wetlands as swamp and garbage land, and full of mosquitoes, but wetlands are really important because they’re essentially the kidneys of our ecosystem,” Matanzas Riverkeeper Jen Lomberk said.

The program’s land acquisition process is willing seller-driven, based on the nomination applications submitted by the St. Augustine community. 

“We all have a role in playing and helping protect biodiversity, and I would argue a responsibility to do that as well,” City Commissioner Barbara Blonder, who also serves as an associate professor of Natural Sciences at Flagler College said.

Too Much Progress, Not Enough Preservation 

With St. Johns County consistently being one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, the area is experiencing overwhelmingly high development rates and land-use changes. As more land is developed and built, natural areas providing vital ecosystem services are becoming limited in St. Augustine. 

“Besides Anastasia State Park and some areas of big marsh where you can’t really develop, everything is developed,” J.B. Miller, the city’s land management coordinator said. “The only parts of the city that really aren’t developed are all of the salt marsh areas. Because everywhere else, lots and lots and lots and lots of houses.”

Program leaders say the community has noticed this lack of conservation land and has expressed a need for more green spaces and fewer developments in the city. 

“People care about land conservation because it’s so connected to our quality of life here,” Lomberk said. “Development is happening where it’s moonscape slash and birth. There’s no intention given to building with the landscape. And so, people are seeing this loss of natural areas, and like that’s why they moved here. That’s what they like here.” 

Emphasis on Ecosystem Services 

One of the program’s primary goals is to highlight the significance of ecosystem services, which the USDA defines as the direct and indirect benefits ecosystems provide humans, or simply nature’s economic impacts. 

“The functioning of what’s already there as opposed to mowing it all down and paving it over,” Blonder said. 

An osprey soars across the Guana River in St. Augustine, Fla. Photo by Chloe Smith.

Marshes, swamps, mangroves, rivers, and other common wetlands found in St. Augustine provide essential ecosystem services such as filtering out pollutants, enhancing water quality, controlling erosion, and providing flood resilience, carbon capture, storm buffering and habitat for plants and animals. 

“As more of those wetlands are getting filled in and houses are getting built on top of them, our ecosystem is losing its ability to uptake those pollutants,” Lomberk said. “Our focus is on water quality, but one of the best ways to protect water quality is to protect land.”

Water Quality Complications

Protecting the city’s water quality is a priority but a difficult obstacle for the program to overcome. Lomberk says because so many people are moving to St. Augustine from out of state, many residents are uninformed about Florida’s ecosystem, specifically how the state’s sewer and stormwater systems work. 

“One of our big hurdles is we really have to try and underscore to folks that everything you do impacts our water,” Lomberk said. “If your car is leaking oil or if you’re spraying a pesticide on your yard, all of that is going into the water. People assume that there’s some magical treatment that’s going to clean it up before it goes into the water, and that’s not the case.”

Implementation of Leisure Activities  

Another program focus is promoting passive recreation through community-based parks and open spaces throughout the city.  

“I think people like to gather in green spaces, whether that’s to celebrate a birthday or go on a hike and reconnect with nature,” Lomberk said. “There’s definitely value to it.”

Other forms of passive recreation include bird watching, canoe kayak launches, fishing, picnicking and more. According to the U.S. EPA, passive recreation—activities that place minimal stress on a site’s resources and do not require facilities—provides ecosystem service benefits and is highly compatible with natural resource protection. 

“The wording for the goals of this conservation resilience acquisition program is purposefully not active recreation,” Blonder said. “We don’t ignore it; It’s just different from what we’re doing with this conservation.”

Preparing to Face Adversity 

While the support from the St. Augustine community has been immense, program leaders expect the public to react in all ways. 

“There is always going to be a contingency of people that think the government should not have land,” Lomberk said. “And sometimes they can get vocal about saying that the county or the city is wasting money on buying conservation lands. But I think a lot of times, that’s an education challenge.”

Lomberk emphasizes interconnectedness and the benefits to an entire community of steering land use away from vulnerable areas. 

A grassland floods in the Greater Fullerwood neighborhood after a storm in St. Augustine, Fla. Photo by Chloe Smith.

“If you have a neighborhood built in somewhere that is flood-prone, then that obviously impacts the people who live in that neighborhood, but it also impacts everybody else,” Lomberk said. “If the city is now having to go in and repair roads or sewer pipes or infrastructure, that affects the entire tax base. If those people are making insurance claims, that impacts everybody else’s insurance.”

Program leaders must also account for long-term management costs, such as coordinating trash pickups or controlling invasive species, which can pose financial issues with St. Augustine’s limited budget. 

“The hardest part of establishing natural areas is not coming up with the funding to buy them, but it’s coming up with the continued funding to make sure they stay in good condition,” Blonder said.

Continuing Community Involvement 

In the hope to continue receiving support for the program’s philosophy and increasing its budget, Blonder says to voice your support by emailing city commissioners, attending meetings and encouraging program leaders to continue. 

Lomberk, elated by the community support thus far, looks forward to the future.

“People get excited about land conservation programs, so the big crowd and the energy and the excitement is really awesome,” Lomberk said. “I also like going out and visiting those places after they’ve been conserved and realizing this is going to stay, this is what should be here, and this is what will continue to be here. That is personally very fulfilling.”

Visit to learn more about St. Augustine’s new conservation program. 

Applications to nominate a parcel of land are open through Friday, May 31, 2024, and can be sent via mail, email, or in-person drop-off.

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