Salazar announces Glades headwaters refuge
FORT LAUDERDALE -- A wildlife refuge and ranching conservation area would be carved out of 150,000 acres in the Everglades headwaters north of Lake Okeechobee under a proposal unveiled Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The proposal, still under study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, envisions government purchase from willing sellers of about 50,000 acres along the Kissimmee River valley. Another 100,000 acres would be preserved under conservation easements and other agreements with private landowners that restrict development and other uses.
Salazar told reporters the goal is to protect threatened wildlife and habitat, improve water quality flowing into Lake Okeechobee and preserve the region's "rural working landscapes."
"The Everglades are unique," Salazar said. "They are probably one of the most important ecosystems we have in the United States."
The plan is the second involving Everglades restoration from Salazar in as many months. In December, the secretary proposed raising an additional 5.5 miles of the cross-South Florida Tamiami Trail highway to improve water flow into Everglades National Park -- which represents about one-fifth of the original Everglades. A one-mile bridge span is under construction now.
For more than two decades, state and federal officials have wrestled with how to restore the natural balance of the Everglades, which has been decimated by farm runoff and urban pollution and by water diverted away through hundreds of manmade canals. A shallow sheet of water once flowed unimpeded from the Kissimmee River south to Florida Bay.
Current restoration plans include construction of huge reservoirs to filter water flowing into the wetlands and the purchase of some agricultural land from sugar companies to return to its natural state.
The headwaters proposal announced Friday would add to the federal purchase last year of about 26,000 acres in the region. Several key Florida officials have endorsed the new plan, along with environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy.
"The entire state and visitors from around the world will benefit from the foresight to keep these rare Florida habitats natural," said Jeff Danter, the Nature Conservancy's Florida director.
Cary Lightsey, whose Lightsey Cattle Co. is working with Interior officials on the plan, said he has had conservation easements on his land since 1990.
"They have all been win-win situations and we have never looked back," he said. "It makes us feel good that we are providing green space and wildlife habitat for future generations."
The project would depend on continued funding from Congress, something U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he would make a priority.
"When I see this desperate need, I will request the appropriations to fill that need," said Nelson, who appeared at the news conference with Salazar.
Salazar said the goal is to finalize the plan by the end of 2011, including setting boundaries for the refuge. Public workshops will be held later this month and February.
Interior Department Everglades site: http://www.fws.gov/southeast/greatereverglades