New federal plan a boon for Everglades
Most of the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area would consist of up to 100,000 acres of pasture land to be protected through conservation easements purchased from willing landowners. Ranchers would retain ownership of their land but agree not to allow development there. Another 50,000 acres would be targeted for outright purchase by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create the refuge itself where public hunting, fishing, and hiking would be permitted. The area extends from southwest Osceola County south to the Lake Okeechobee, including swaths of Polk, Okeechobee and Highlands counties.
Federal officials acknowledge fully accomplishing the plan is years away and could cost more than $600 million, with no money yet set aside. But, they say, it’s worth the effort.
“We found a conservation landscape. We found a gap between those lands. We wanted to make connectivity to these places. We wanted to make sure the ranching community is on board,” said Charlie Pelizza of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Pelizza said the areas targeted for conservation are a mosaic of habitats, such as pinelands, wetlands, prairies, and scrub that support 98 threatened and endangered species, including the Florida black bear, panther and scrub jay. They are also critical to the state’s drinking water supply by slowing down and filtering pollutants in water that flows from farms and suburbs into Lake Okeechobee.
“This is a softer touch of restoration of the Everglades,” he said. “Others rely very heavily on infrastructure. What we’re hoping for here is a more natural approach.”
Osceola County cattle rancher Mike Adams, who attended Wednesday’s news conference, said he supports the program.
“The easement type of program keeps people employed, which is critical,” Adams said. “Working through an easement program keeps lands on the tax rolls. We see this as a win-win for the Adams family and for the wildlife.”
When the idea of a new refuge first was floated early this year, many South Florida hunters and anglers became alarmed because they feared they’d be excluded from some of their favorite recreation areas on dry land and in wetlands, rivers and lakes. But both federal and state officials emphasized that won’t happen.
“The Service will defer to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to decide on hunting opportunities and managing public access for hunting and fishing,” said FWC northeast regional director Dennis David.
Added Pelizza: “We hope to show the sportsman community we’re really serious about providing that access.”
Now that the feds have a map of the area to show people, they will seek public comment through October 24. Public hearings will be Sept. 24 at South Florida Community College in Avon Park and Oct. 1 at Kissimmee’s Osceola Heritage Park. Written comments may be submitted by email to EvergladesHeadwatersProposal@fws.gov.
If the approval process goes smoothly, the deal could be done as soon as early 2012. Then funding would need to be obtained in a process that would likely stretch over many years. The Department of the Interior’s funding for land acquisition and conservation easement such as this typically comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Royalties from federal leases of offshore oil and gas drilling go to that fund, and many projects compete annually for some of the money. It’s also possible that private land donations could be part of the equation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service recently announced it would spend $100 million to acquire development rights to some 24,000 acres in four counties around Lake Okeechobee that overlap the proposed refuge and conservation area. The two programs are separate, but the Fish and Wildlife Service and Agriculture say they will work together on their common goals.
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/09/07/v-print/2395111/new-federal-plan-a-boon-for-everglades.html#ixzz1XUAX5gtY