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Aerial of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

Friends of Chassahowitzka wins national award

Big accomplishments sometimes follow big disappointments.

Such was the case for the Friends of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a non-profit advocacy group for five refuges on Florida’s west coast. In 2005, the group had helped pull together the pieces on a multi-million dollar campaign to buy an important area for manatees called Three Sisters Springs. They were beat out by a better offer, and development appeared likely.

But the Friends didn’t stop.

“Perseverance was our mantra,” said Friends President Lace Blue-McLean. “Whenever we had board meetings, we’d say ‘Let’s all remember our focus and our mission.’”

With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state, and local governments, the City of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Management District bought 57.8 acres surrounding Three Sisters Springs and four other natural springs for $10.5 million. Management of the property was turned over to the Service in July 2010, as an addition to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Michael Lusk, refuge manager for the Chassahowitzka complex north of Tampa, said the Friends group made the deal possible. “They reached out to a very broad spectrum of partners to save a very unique piece of property, one of the last of its kind in Florida,” Lusk said. “They were very instrumental in raising awareness.”

Tonight in Kansas City, Blue-McLean will accept the Friends Group of the Year Award from the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for “being exemplary community leaders and advocates for the Refuge System.”

The Friends also donated a $40,000 manatee rescue truck and rescue net. They also completed a mile of trails and oversaw the construction of an observation tower, pavilion and canoe and kayak launch at the Salt Marsh Trails property.

Blue-McLean said the group’s 200 members are excited about the national recognition, but “in the bigger picture, the award is the actual success in acquiring that property. It’s a coup.”

For more information about the Friends group, please visit http://friendsofchazz.org/.

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