SANTA ROSA BEACH — Crossing a wooden footbridge a few feet above a slow-moving creek, Teri Tolbert spots the slim storm-uprooted tree fallen across it. She bends down, and with a little effort tosses it aside, looking satisfied as it splashes into the dark water.
For years, this has been the story of her life, as she and her husband have managed the 70 acres of largely undisturbed land they own at the edge of Choctawhatchee Bay, a half-mile or so from where the dirt and gravel Bishop-Tolbert Road passes under the power lines lining U.S. Highway 98.
Their constant attention includes picking up and burning downed limbs, pulling up invasive species like Chinese tallow trees and conducting the occasional controlled burn to keep undergrowth from choking out low-growing flowers and vegetation.
"There's no day off," Tolbert said. "We spent all last week picking up limbs."
As a result, the acreage looks much as it did 38 years ago, when Tolbert and her family purchased 60 acres — she later added 10 more — between what is now the north side of U.S. Highway 98 and the bay's Churchill Bayou.
The effort to keep it that way, though, and to protect it from encroaching residential and commercial development, is beginning to take its toll.
"It was fun for about the first 38 years," the 60-something Tolbert said, only half-joking as she walked across an area transformed into a pasture for the half-dozen or so horses that she and her husband keep on the property.
"I could work hard a while back," she laments, "but anymore, I get kinda beat up."
The work is also wearing on Tolbert's husband, Joe Strouse. An airline pilot, Strouse is often away from home, but according to Tolbert, "when he's here, all he does is run a chain saw."
Facing that reality, Tolbert is also facing some hard questions about the future of her property, one of the last remaining unspoiled stretches of land in private hands along this part of the Gulf Coast.
For the short term, Tolbert said, she is wondering how to maintain the property. For the longer term, she's trying to work out how to keep the tract out of the hands of developers, who have already cast dream-filled eyes and cash-filled hands in her direction.
"I've been offered $30 million," she said. "I get calls all the time."
When they bought the tract nearly 40 years ago, Tolbert and her family paid $137,000 for it.
But that was before nearby Destin sprawled from sleepy fishing town to popular vacation and retirement destination.
And, just as important, it was not long after Tolbert, who grew up in the area, spent the carefree hours of youth riding horses on the beach, enjoying bonfires there, and building rafts out of wood and Styrofoam to explore the bay.
"It was very rural, and slow," she remembers. "It was a long-distance call to Destin. ... And of course, when you had to go for groceries, it was Fort Walton Beach or DeFuniak Springs."
Tolbert hints it's that carefree feeling, as much as the land itself, that she is striving to nurture, protect —and share.
"When I get past 98 and the power lines, I say, 'Aaah ... sanctuary!'" she said.
"I used to joke that this would be Central Park someday," Tolbert continued, her voice trailing as she considered the prospect of holding on to the undeveloped acreage.
"I'm not a person who just wants to close the gates," she said. "I'd like to leave it as a park."
As a park, Tolbert's acreage could be a testament to the area's natural history and human history. It teems with animal life, from deer to armadillos to gopher tortoises to all kinds of snakes.
"You wouldn't believe the wildlife that will walk right up to our deck," she said.
There is also plenty of evidence of the Native American history of the area, according to Tolbert.
"I've got spearheads, and all kinds of pottery," she said.
Tolbert's short-term plan for maintaining the tract is starting to take shape.
"I either need some volunteers, or something to make some money," she said.
To raise money to help fund the labor and materials needed to keep the tract in shape, Tolbert has dabbled in hosting birthday parties, and says she's thinking that hosting weddings might be a next step in raising money.
Longer term, things get a little bit tricky for Tolbert. She'd like to turn the property over to local or state government, or to some conservation group, but she wants assurances that the land will remain in its unspoiled state.
"I've already spoken to an attorney to try to get that (assurances that the tract would remain a managed natural area) ironclad," she said.
And it's still possible, Tolbert said, that the acreage could wind up in private hands, under the right conditions.
"If somebody from Hollywood swore on a stack of Bibles (not to develop the acreage), I'm not saying I wouldn't sell it," Tolbert said.