How it Happened: UF/IFAS DeLuca Preserve

DeLuca Preserve entrance sign (white text and UF logo over a blue background. Sign reads: "UF/IFAS DeLuca Preserve, Access by appointment only.") It was called Destiny, named for the incredible development opportunity of 27,000 acres of rural property at the intersection of three major thoroughfares in Central Florida. Just 30 minutes south of the Orlando metropolitan area, it appeared to be the ideal location, along with the ideal time, for developing a climate-conscious community for Florida’s expanding population, planned with careful consideration for the health needs of an aging population while balancing the impact on the environment by conserving local resources. In 2005, it looked like it was destined to become the next big thing in Florida…until it wasn’t.

Mired in legal issues that delayed construction, the Destiny project was lost to the economic bust and subsequent recession of 2007. The project was permanently shelved when Fred DeLuca, one of the primary partners in the project, passed away in 2015.

Four years later, in 2019, the first of many conversations took place between the team representing Elisabeth DeLuca and the University of Florida to discuss the property that was now destined for another purpose. Mrs. DeLuca recognized the worth of this unique property, beyond its financial value. She saw that this tract of land, which was largely untouched and sparsely populated, held unparalleled natural value. As the years passed and her love of the property grew, she saw a new opportunity to permanently preserve it for the benefit of the people of Florida, both present and future. By partnering with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), the DeLuca property could be stewarded by a land-grant institution, studied by top faculty, utilized as a natural classroom by students and preserved for the next generation of Floridians. In 2005, it was destiny to develop a green community at the crossroads of three major highways. By 2019, it was fate that this property should be put into a conservation easement and join the protected 354,000 acres of surrounding land and expanding a wildlife corridor through the center of the state.

The DeLuca Preserve was formally gifted to UF/IFAS in 2020, made possible through a vital partnership with Ducks Unlimited, a recognized conservation organization and key member in this gift.

The UF/IFAS DeLuca Preserve Today

The DeLuca Preserve represents an unprecedented opportunity to elevate all three facets of UF/IFAS: the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), UF/IFAS Research and UF/IFAS Extension. As the largest land gift made to a public university, the DeLuca Preserve provides the prospect of conducting mega-research across a patchwork of varying ecosystems.

“The diversity of the property creates an opportunity for partnership between many UF/IFAS units,” said Dr. Robert Gilbert, interim senior vice president of UF/IFAS and dean for research. “We’re making a concerted effort to encourage cross-functional partnerships among UF/IFAS faculty, and this property will foster these partnerships to expand our knowledge of ecosystems in this area of the state.”

UF/IFAS Research has invested heavily into the property, using internal resources to realize the potential of the DeLuca Preserve. Jumpstart research programs, funded by UF/IFAS Research, explore the rich tapestry of biodiversity on the preserve, while also studying the ecological and agricultural impact the land has on the state of Florida.


Six Bio Blitz participants dressed in hats and jeans explore the DeLuca Preserve's expanse of palmetto shrubland with scattered pine trees.


“The Jumpstart research program has resulted in some unique partnerships within and outside of UF/IFAS.  We have had faculty working together from the West Florida Research and Education Center (WFREC) all the way down to the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center (FLREC), with some interests coming from the Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) as well,” said Brent Sellers, director of the Range Cattle Research and Education Center (RCREC).

These projects range from examining disease transmission and pathology via insects to hydrology and the importance of the watershed of the DeLuca Preserve to the state of Florida. Not surprisingly, there is a considerable amount of work in wildlife ecology, as the preserve is home to the endangered grasshopper sparrow as well as a wildlife corridor to the Florida panther, the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

“These projects should provide a breadth of groundbreaking information on natural systems,” said Gilbert. “This variety of research will provide a strong baseline of information on the preserve, including species composition and distribution, hydrological features and more and represents a strong cross section of interdisciplinary team science.”

The DeLuca property is proving to be a goldmine of potential research activity. The property also bridges scientific relationships by bringing together multiple agencies focused on agriculture, natural resources and conservation.

“It has created new or continued partnerships with NGOs, including Archbold Biological Station, The Nature Conservancy, the Avian Preservation and Education Conservancy, and, of course, Ducks Unlimited,” said Sellers.

The Future of the UF/IFAS DeLuca Preserve

UF/IFAS is just scratching the surface on what can be accomplished at the DeLuca Preserve. Almost all activity on the site to date has been focused on research. Exploring, mapping and cataloguing 27,000 acres is a project unto itself. Transforming the information gleaned from that initial investigation into a program for continuing education and outreach will take time and additional resources.

“We always look for ideas that have great scientific merit that will lead to a return on investment in grant funding and graduate student training,” Gilbert said.

Four cows (black, tan, brown-and-white) stand together in tall grass and weeds, framed by tree branches. Palm trees are visible in the distance. The future of the DeLuca Preserve is hinged on that concept: additional investment to expand into the role of education and Extension. With the right amount of continuing support, UF/IFAS can develop a one-of-a-kind educational and Extension model that is, in effect, an immersive outdoor classroom.  From school students involved in Florida 4-H, to college students studying agricultural and life sciences, on to Florida residents active in UF/IFAS Extension programs like Florida Master Naturalists and Florida Master Gardener Volunteers, the DeLuca Preserve, ideally located in the center of the state, could serve as an axis point for UF/IFAS’ land-grant mission of teaching, research and Extension.

The process for securing expansion funds has already begun. According to Gilbert, “An initial investment in a seed grant led by Dr. Hance Ellington of RCREC at Deluca has led to a $1.4 million federal grant on resiliency of working rangelands. The research project will boost long-term climate resilience by enhancing land management on private properties.”

While there is work to do in finding new sources of funding and support for growing the amount of programing UF/IFAS administers around the preserve, the basic fact remains: the gift of 27,000 acres is a solid foundation to build on. Elisabeth DeLuca has given UF/IFAS a blank slate to create something that will benefit the state of Florida for generations to come.

One day, everything this property can offer in support of the land-grant mission will be realized, and we will look at the DeLuca Preserve and say, “It was destiny.”


The “How it Happened” series showcases the transformational gifts made by donors to UF/IFAS during the University of Florida’s Go Greater Campaign. To learn more about creating your own impact through UF/IFAS programs with a charitable gift, please visit our website at or call the IFAS Advancement office at 352-392-1975.


Posted: December 18, 2023

Category: , Conservation, UF/IFAS
Tags: DeLuca Preserve, How It Happened, UF/IFAS

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