The Alachua Conservation Trust recently received the Land Trust Alliance's National Land Trust Excellence Award, an honor for which it was chosen from a pool of more than 1,700 land trusts across the United States.
"It's the biggest award that a land trust can win in the country, so it was a pretty amazing feat," ACT Executive Director Tom Kay said.
"This is a huge deal," said Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson, former ACT executive director. "This is the highest single recognition that a land trust can ever get."
ACT is an accredited land trust that runs four public preserves and has helped preserve nearly 50,000 acres of land throughout North Central Florida since 1988, according to a news release.
Without the support of the local community, ACT would never have been able to achieve all that it has, Kay said. "It's really an award for the community," he said.
ACT focuses not only on land acquisitions but also on public outreach and other areas of conservation. The nonprofit has built a network of organizations and programs that serve the community through environmental education and outreach efforts, among other things, Kay said.
Over the years, he said, ACT has relinquished programs it helped spearhead to groups that are passionate about continuing them. The ACT family includes Historic Haile Homestead, Springs Eternal and the Tuscawilla Learning Center.
Through its own efforts as well as those of its partners, ACT has been able to have a greater impact than it would have had it been working alone, Kay said.
Kay became the executive director of ACT this summer and credited its previous leaders for supporting and growing the organization over the years.
Hutchinson served as ACT's executive director from 1989 to 1992 and then again from 2008 to December 2012, when he gave up the post after being elected to the County Commission.
He said the organization has spun off many projects it helped get rolling to other groups that are now part of the ACT family.
"We sort of know how to help create something and then let go at the appropriate time. In that sense, we're kind of an incubator for these conservation-related nonprofits," he said.
ACT's creative financing strategies also set it apart from other land trusts, Hutchinson said. He recalled one instance when the organization needed to make a $3 million purchase within 90 days so it could conserve a particular piece of land.
To cover the cost, ACT borrowed money from 50 people and received donations from 300 others. This creative solution allowed the organization to make its 90-day deadline and pay everyone back in a timely manner.
For a land trust, receiving this award is like a football team winning a national championship, Hutchinson said. He said he thought ACT received this award not for one particular thing but because of the breadth of its operation, which encompasses land acquisitions as well as historic preservation and advocacy efforts. That diversity has helped it rise to the top among land trusts across the country.