Step into Florida's natural past at Dunedin's Gladys E. Douglas Preserve

In the midst of the subdivisions and shopping centers of Pinellas County, Dunedin’s Gladys E. Douglas Preserve is a remnant of vanishing natural Florida.

The largest undeveloped sandy ecosystem in north Pinellas, the 44-acre preserve’s scrub habitat is home to more than 140 species of native plants and the last known rosemary bald habitat in Pinellas. Behind conservation fencing, reindeer moss spreads across the ground and prickly pear cactus grow in sandy soil. Christmas lichen forms bright red patches on trees. Overhead, butterflies flutter about and birds sing in the trees. The endangered Florida scrub-jay has been spotted on site. 

The City of Dunedin opened the preserve, located northeast of Virginia Avenue and Keene Road, with a public ceremony on a Saturday morning in late February. Hundreds turned out to celebrate the culmination of an effort to save a unique natural area that was almost lost to development. 

Philanthropist Gladys Douglas lived on the property for more than 50 years and wished to have  the land preserved after she passed. But those wishes were not put in her will. In July 2019, Douglas passed away at age 95. She is buried in the adjacent Dunedin Cemetery, where her grave faces her old homestead.

In the summer of 2020, Michelle Birnbaum, who lives kitty-corner to the Douglas property, read a story by Tampa Bay Times reporter Tracey McManus that the estate was selling the land to homebuilding giant Pulte Homes. The next day, Birnbaum was on the street corner waving a sign with a message to save the land.

A neighbor, Regina Marton, stopped to ask Birnbaum if she would be out waving a sign again the next day. The following morning, Marton, her husband and sons joined Birnbaum. That started a grassroots community effort to save the Douglas property. Launching a Facebook group to spread the word about the campaign, Birnbaum found out that Nicole Mattheus, a local resident and biologist who specializes in gopher tortoises like those found on the Douglas property, was also campaigning to preserve the land. They decided to work together to lead the effort. When Pulte Homes also backed out of the deal to purchase the land, the opportunity was there to make it happen - if the money could be raised. 

Conservation and environmental groups like the Florida  Suncoast Sierra Club, the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the Clearwater Audubon Club stepped up to join the effort.

Lichens like this reindeer moss thrive throughout the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve in Dunedin.“All these groups understood how significant the specific type of environment we were dealing with was,” Birnbaum says. “They wanted to help us document it and strengthen our case for why this needs to be saved. The Suncoast Sierra Club was fantastic. They supported us and guided our effort to make this happen.”

The Pinellas Community Foundation charitable organization got involved to oversee the private fundraising efforts to raise the money to purchase the property. Community members, including many who had never done any public speaking, began urging the Dunedin City Council and Pinellas County Commission to pursue the purchase of the land. Much of this happened during the height of the COVID pandemic, making in-person meetings impossible at times and complicating the effort. 

Dunedin, Pinellas County and private donors eventually raised $10 million and the city purchased the property in May 2021. In total, some 1,100 private donors contributed a combined $4.5 million.

“It was such a collaborative process. it was gratifying to see all these individuals and groups step up, including our political leaders,” Birnbaum says. “It helped that we had a large group in the community and that group was visible online and waving signs on the street corner. Through this outreach, people became aware of what was going on and turned to the city and said, “You have to help us save this property.’ They saw that this is something that was really important to the community and that people really wanted to get this done.”

Last spring, Dunedin purchased the adjacent Jerry Lake from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for $500,000. When the lake is added to the preserve in a future phase  planned to include a kayak launch, fishing pier, restrooms, a picnic pavilion, and a wildlife observation platform, more than 124 acres will be open to the public.

Today, Gladys Douglas’ widower, Bob Hackworth Sr. still lives in their home at the east end of the property. Eventually, the home is planned to be added to the preserve as a nature museum. 

Right now, the preserve is a network of nature trails branching off from one another through the pine scrub. Walking the trails on a recent morning, Birnbaum points out the butterflies looping through the air, the reindeer moss that will expand to look like snowballs in the rain and the gopher tortoise burrows.

“This is what Florida used to look like,” she says. “You don’t see this anymore. I want to come here every day. I think I’m still in shock this actually happened.”

For more information, go to Gladys E. Douglas Preserve.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.