“I am extremely proud of the fact that so many new properties have been protected, now up to 18,000 acres, and the organization has prospered with professional staff. The NFLT is a legacy which gives me great pleasure and satisfaction.” -Bill McQuilkin, April 2017
Earlier this year, NFLT staff reconnected with the organization’s founder, Bill McQuilkin. Since almost all new staff has been hired in recent years, we recognized the need to connect with our organization’s roots and not lose ties to our past. Bill now lives in California, so, unable to meet in person, we scheduled a call with him last Spring. On March 29th, NFLT staff and volunteers crowded into the office conference room, excited to hear from the father of the organization. After introducing ourselves, the storytelling began.
In the late 1990s, Bill was a resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, but vacationed every year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he discovered the premier land trust in the country at the time – Jackson Hole Land Trust. Bill recalled, “We did not have a land trust in north Florida at the time . . . and I was convinced that land conservation was urgently needed. This became a calling for me.” His previous work on the board of National Audubon Society fostered his appreciation for conservation and laid the foundation for what would come next. For guidance, Bill used Jackson Hole Land Trust as a template, and got in touch with the Land Trust Alliance, a resource and membership of land trusts across the country. Working mostly on his own, however, Bill compiled a board of directors, filed the paperwork, and North Florida Land Trust was incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization by the end of 1999.
That was the beginning. “[A] Land Trust is a difficult sell,” Bill said. “It’s a matter of sitting down over a meal.” That’s how he brought David Strickland on board. They sat at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and had a long breakfast and by the end of it, David committed to becoming a board member and to making a major contribution. “That was the most expensive breakfast he ever had,” Bill chuckled. “And that’s the way it worked almost always.” To gain support, Bill would meet with small groups of people in someone’s home. “It’s through these person to person interactions we find people who really have an emotional desire for preserving land,” he said.
Over time, Bill and his board had raised enough money to hire an Executive Director, and from there the organization stabilized and was able to grow. “We didn’t have any money in those early years to purchase lands so we did a lot of partnerships.” Through working with national organizations like the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy, NFLT was able to acquire Pescatello Island and the first six acres of the now 70-acre Bogey Creek Preserve. Since then, NFLT has come a long way in filling the conservation niche in northeast Florida. With ten staff and over 18,000 acres protected, NFLT is expanding on what Bill started.
At the end of the call, Bill told us that starting the land trust was his “most exciting legacy.” We were honored to speak with him, and we let him know how meaningful it was to all of us to have a conversation with our Founder.