For the second time in two years, federal officials have announced plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to protect the Everglades ecosystem by conserving and rehabilitating portions of the ranch land between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday his agency's Wetlands Reserve Program will spend $60 million to acquire the development rights to 23,000 acres of ranch somewhere south of the Orlando area. Unlike the more transparent process used when the state buys conservation easements, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said they would not disclose the sellers or the locations of the properties involved until the purchases are complete.
"We want obviously to preserve the Everglades," Vilsack said during Friday's visit to Orlando. "We want to make sure the flow and quantity of water is what it needs to be to serve the various needs of agriculture and communities, ... to preserve wildlife and enhance tourism."
The vast majority of the state and federal governments' Everglades restoration work is aimed at replumbing various canals, rivers and reservoirs in South Florida. But the $169 million committed by the Agriculture Department so far in this case is being spent far upstream from those waterways, with the goal of restoring wetlands that can store large amounts of Everglades-bound rainfall and then gradually release it, as nature intended.
Water flowing through the ailing Everglades ecosystem starts near downtown Orlando, funnels south through creeks and the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, then hydrates Everglades National Park at the state's southern tip.
Much of the landscape between Orlando and Okeechobee, while chopped up by roads and drainage canals, includes cattle ranches with open range that supports native wildlife species. And extensive portions of that open space used to be functioning wetlands.
The government's Wetland Reserve Program purchases aren't meant to take complete ownership of the land; rather, they are crafted to prevent future development and restore wetlands while allowing ranchers to continue using their properties for cattle grazing that doesn't harm the newly restored environment.
Vilsack said the program's payments to ranchers give them to the chance to stay in business by buying other properties that are less environmentally sensitive. He also noted that Florida's land prices are significantly higher than those in other regions. "It takes a lot of money to do a lot of good work in Florida," Vilsack said.
Also unfolding in the northern portion of the Everglades ecosystem is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. That conservation initiative aims to assemble 50,000 acres of government-owned land and 100,000 acres of land owned jointly by ranchers and the government through conservation easements.
The Agriculture Department hinted that some of the $80 million announced Friday would be used to buy the development rights to a property known as American Prime in Glades County. That parcel is considered a critical bottleneck for the Florida panthers as they extend their range northward beyond the Everglades. No details were disclosed, however.
Environmental activists quickly celebrated Friday's announcement. Nature Conservancy President Mark Tercek said the planned acquisitions are "transforming protection of the entire Everglades system."
Audubon of Florida's vice president for advocacy, Charles Lee, praised the Agriculture Department's decision not to buy the ranch land outright.
"Maintaining the cattle-ranching economy in the Everglades headwaters is a vital component of the strategy to restore the ecosystem," Lee said.
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