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A critical stretch of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is preserved in Polk County

Bald eagle in front of a lake
Anna Crocitto Photography/@anna_crocitto
Courtesy Conservation Florida
A bald eagle nest is inside the property along Lake Marion.

The land will be called the Bellini Preserve, in honor of Tampa-based businessman and environmentalist Arnie Bellini.

A rare stretch of wild land in eastern Polk County has been preserved through a partnership between a conservation group and a Tampa-based philanthropist.

It's 639 acres of hardwood forests, scrublands, freshwater marshlands and swamplands. It includes 3 1/2 miles of shoreline along Lake Marion.

The land was bought by businessman Arnie Bellini when it unexpectedly came on the market in 2020. He held onto it until a financing deal could be worked out with the nonprofit group Conservation Florida.

It will be called the Bellini Preserve.

“The Bellini Family loves the wild places of Florida and wanted to preserve this beautiful and ecologically sensitive land for the citizens of Florida,” Arnie Bellini said in a prepared statement. “Polk County residents deserve to keep this land as part of their heritage and enjoy it forever as a new Polk County park.”

After the deal approval by the Polk County Commission, the land is to become an environmental park for public use and recreation.

"I visited the property relatively recently and was just blown away by how much wildlife was out there and just how critical it was to protect this piece of paradise," said Traci Deen, CEO of Conservation Florida.

Lake photo
Anna Crocitto Photography/@anna_crocitto
Courtesy Conservation Florida
Lake Marion

Deen said it sits in the middle of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, adding another piece to a path for wildlife that's increasingly being chopped up by rampant development.

"In addition to being home to some of our most endangered wildlife, it also serves as a connector piece for the Florida Wildlife Corridor," she said. "So this property connects current conservation lands, allowing our larger roaming wildlife to be able to traverse a wildlife corridor and also further protecting our state's freshwater supply."

Deen noted that Polk County has become one of the fastest-growing counties in the entire nation, giving more impetus to protect these wild lands from potential development.

"This property is really marvelous," she said. "Filled to the brim with wildlife. Absolutely stunning views over three miles of Lake Marion shoreline and home to some of the last remaining scrub habitat in our state."

The deal with the Bellini family included Polk County Natural Lands, the Department of Defense and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. To get the deal done, Deen said it took one land swap, two conservation easements and four real estate transactions.

For the first time in history, Resilient Florida funding was used to support inland efforts. Pulling the project off involved Wildlands Conservation, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Polk County, and the Department of Defense.

"It was an honor to work with such a broad and diverse group of partners and contribute to the protection of this property within the Avon Park Air Force Range Sentinel Landscape,” said Lt. Col. Buck MacLaughlin.

He said the shoreline property will support military readiness by keeping development away from the bombing range.

Map of the preserve
Conservation Florida
Map of the Bellini Preserve

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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