heartwood preserve opens - Group picture at ribbon cutting

Leaving a Natural Legacy in the Family Tradition: Heartwood Preserve

By Diane Bedard Posted on June 30, 2021

In the late 1890s, an ambitious boy arrived in St. Pete Florida, after traveling from Minnesota with his parents. They established themselves in the area, and Jay Starkey began his education – both in school and on the range. He loved learning about cattle, and it was easy getting paid work after he learned the ropes. Meanwhile, he held a practical job as the local postmaster.

After marrying Blanche Straub, Jay decided he wanted to be a full-time cattleman. He purchased 10 acres in the Ulmerton Road area of Largo, a ways out of the city, with his friend and partner, Dave Cuningham. They began breeding, raising, and selling Florida beef in the traditional cow-calf method.

Climbing on the Ulmerton Ranch hay truck after a hard day of haying. Image courtesy of Laura Starkey.

Jay and Dave grew their operation quite successfully to over 650-acres, as St. Petersburg grew and grew. In 1937, that land became too valuable to continue ranching on, so they sold it. They moved their herds farther out to Odessa in Pasco County, purchasing tracts of land until they built the 16,000-acre C-S Ranch. At the time, Florida was an open-range state, and in the 1940s, Jay Starkey, Dave Cunningham, and Dave’s brothers Howard and Ernest cleared land for cattle and ran barbed wire around the lot!

The men behind C-S Ranch, Dave, Howard and Ernest Cunningam, and Jay B. Starkey, Sr. Image courtesy of Laura Starkey.

They raised Brahma cattle, sold timber and citrus, and eventually Jay Starkey ended up sole owner of what was then known as the Anclote River Ranch.

Starkey Ranchers have Passion for Conserving Wilderness for Future Generations

As a person who had seen great change in this part of Florida over his lifetime, Jay Starkey had a passion for conserving the wilderness so future generations could experience the natural beauty of his youth.  He sold a huge tract of the ranch to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to preserve its natural state. This was the beginning of the Jay B Starkey Wilderness Park, comanaged by SWFWMD and Pasco County Parks and Recreation.

J.B. Starkey, Jr. and Marsha Starkey in 2015. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

His son, J.B. Starkey, Jr., took over ranching business. In 2014, the ranch was now known as Starkey Ranch and consisted of about 2,600 acres. Cattle operations continued, as did the family’s desire to share the natural beauty of the area and wide-open spaces with residents and visitors.

“I want a man to be able to bring his children and see it how I saw it, how God almighty made it,” Starkey says of the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. “Without that there won’t be any places to see natural Florida.”[1]

The Starkey family has a passion for conserving the wilderness for future generations to experience the natural beauty of this area. Seen here from left, Laura, her daughter Sofia, Frank, J.B. Jr., Marsha, Katherine, and Trey, Missing is sister, Sarah who is a rancher in North Carolina. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

A wonderful eco-tour, called Flatwoods Adventure, was run on the ranch for several years in the early 2000s, with open-air buses and horseback tours taking visitors through the miles of rangeland, and teaching about conservation, Florida’s unique fauna, and its varied ecosystems.

Flatwoods Adventures brought visitors on “rambling ecotours of a Florida ranch,” and allowed visitors and schoolchildren to learn about nature and ranching while enjoying the wide-open spaces and wildlife that was abundant. Image by Diane Bedard.

J.B. Starkey, Jr. had married Marsha and they raised four children.

One of those children is Laura Starkey. In 2006, she became Starkey Ranch’s Director of Conservation Lands, overseeing the land management of over 1,000 acres of woods.

Laura Starkey is a self-confessed nature girl. She is seen here helping visitors with groundskeeping at Heartwood Preserve. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

Laura Starkey continues her Family’s Passion to Preserve Natural Environment

Laura is a self-confessed nature girl. As development took over parts of the ranch that she had called home, Laura continued to seek ways to preserve pieces for future generations to be able to connect with this special place. At a national land conservation conference, the idea of conservation burial as a viable solution was planted in her mind.

She developed the plan to create Heartwood Preserve, a 41-acre conservation cemetery and nature preserve. Although there are several cemeteries that offer natural burial throughout Florida’s Nature Coast, Heartwood Preserve is the only conservation cemetery as of this writing.

The Welcome Center emphasizes the philosophy of being one with nature that is felt throughout Heartwood Preserve. Image by Diane Bedard.

“I wanted to find a way to conserve the land and hold onto some of the woods of the area. The more I learned about conservation cemeteries, the more I realized that this was the right way for me to be able to share the land with families,” Laura shared with NatureCoaster on a recent visit.

Natural Burial is an Age-old Concept that allows the Body to be Naturally Recycled

Natural burial, according to Wikipedia, is the interment of the body of a dead person in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition but allows the body to be naturally recycled. Also called green burial, three things are required: no embalming, no burial vaults, and all materials used to shroud or contain the body must be biodegradable.

Natural burial involves returning a body unto the earth. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

Because a body is not processed with chemicals, it can be returned to the earth, providing regeneration in plant life. This is consistent with the desire of many people to lessen their ecological footprint.

Heartwood Preserve has taken the natural burial concept a step further by becoming a conservation cemetery.

Heartwood Preserve is the Nature Coast’s only Conservation Cemetery and Nature Preserve

“As a conservation cemetery, we seek to conserve the land, keeping it in its natural state. This year, we brought Jonathan Bacco onboard to help manage and maintain our nature preserve, as well as ensure the effects of the burials do not damage Heartwood’s ecosystem,” Laura continued, “Our property abuts the Starkey Wilderness Park, with over 18,000 acres of conservation lands. We are privately owned, but our walking paths, trails, and picnic tables are open to the public.”

A conservation cemetery seeks to conserve the land in its natural state. Heartwood’s Nature Preserve is an important part of this plan. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

Heartwood Preserve opened in 2016 and Assistant Director Diana Brooks was hired to handle sales. She is fully licensed by the State of Florida as a cemetery manager and pre-need sales agent and is a Certified Life Tribute Professional. Diana has worked in the funeral and cemetery world since 2006 and appreciates being able to help families plan their final wishes.

Diana Brooks helps Families with Planning and Services at Heartwood Preserve

By appointment, Diana takes the time to explain Heartwood’s burial options and the costs involved. Whether with pre-planning or immediate need, Diana is a gracious and caring counselor during what can be a difficult process. If the family chooses to inter their loved one in the conservation cemetery, Diana will help the family step-by-step through the cemetery/burial process, file their paperwork, and work directly with their funeral home. As a Certified Life Tribute Professional, she can plan, oversee and assist with Celebrations of Life that honor the deceased person’s life.

The property is continuously improved and maintained by the staff, including Barney (Barnabas) Machut, a native of South Sudan who came to U.S. from Kenya in 2001. Barney worked cattle in the Sudan and is gifted in caring for animals and plants. He keeps the equipment in tip-top shape and assists in the prescribed burns to maintain Heartwood’s longleaf pine flatwood and cypress dome wetland ecosystems.

From 2-acres of their conservation land committed to burials at its opening to four acres today, Heartwood Preserve has doubled the space open for burials as it has grown. Part of the reason for this may be their focus on bringing the community into their circle through events and activities.

The Staff at Heartwood works to Build Community

“One of our goals is to build community. Each family that brings their loved one for burial here become part of our Heartwood family. We encourage them to visit as often as they want,” Laura shares. “We hold events to help build our community, including Talk & Tours, Wildflower Walks, Meditation and Yoga events, Earth Day celebrations, and Bird Walks. Diana hosts the West Pasco Death Café, where participants can talk about death with no agenda, topic or theme – there is no sales involved.”

The West Pasco Audubon Society has installed three bird boxes on the property and monitors bird populations from Heartwood Preserve. The ranch Laura grew up on was a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, so it is no surprise that the connection continues.

intalling bird box
Bird boxes have been installed by the West Pasco Audubon Society, which also holds bird walks to welcome visitors to Heartwood’s Nature Preserve. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

Helping Families is Part of What Makes having a Conservation Cemetery Worthwhile

I asked Laura what she likes best about having a conservation cemetery for her vocation and she replied with a genuine smile, “When a family says to us, with deep feeling, ‘Thank you for having this.’ It provides a profound, deep connection to know this place can give so much peace to those who are facing the end of life.”

The first Saturday of November is set aside each year as a ‘Day of Remembrance’ at Heartwood Preserve. A ceremony is held to honor those who have been interred in the cemetery, and later a party is held to celebrate each year of Heartwood’s growth. All families are invited, as well as friends of the Heartwood Family.

Building a community is part of Heartwood Preserve’s philosophy. Image courtesy of Heartwood Preserve.

So, while death can be difficult subject, the team at Heartwood Preserve try to make it easier to look at. When looking at how to preserve nature for future generations, surely burying the dead seems paradoxical. But isn’t it said that ‘in giving we receive, and in dying we are born to eternal life’?

I strongly encourage you to check out Heartwood Preserve. Visit the preserve and feel the peace of this place. Join the community in one or more of their events. When it is time for you to make decisions about where your mortal remains should go, visit with their team, and see what feels right to you.

[1] http://southtampamagazine.com/rich-in-ranching-the-history-of-starkey-ranch/

  • Heartwood Preserve is located at 4100 Starkey Blvd, Trinity, FL 34655
  • Their phone number is 727-376-5111
  • Hours –
    • Welcome Center: Mon-Thurs 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, Friday 9:30 am – 3:30 pm, Weekends and Holidays by Appointment
    • Nature Preserve and Cemetery: Mon-Sat 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, Sunday 11 am – 4:30 pm
  • Website: Heartwood Preserve



Sally says

Diane, You continue to educate us thru your NatureCoaster Newsletter! I had no idea there was a cemetary like Heartwood Preserve. This is just another example of how the Starkey family serve as roll models for the rest of us. Thank You for your newsletter. You really keep introducing us to our county in many ways and to the people who live here!

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