Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the Florida Keys by air, boat and on foot on Saturday, focusing on the four national wildlife refuges and 30 federally endangered and threatened species managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The refuges are on the front line of conservation, where encroaching development, exotic species and the future challenges of sea level rise in the island ecosystem present threats to wildlife and habitats found nowhere else in the world.
"As the department responsible for managing world-class national wildlife refuges as well as the Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys, we view the conservation and restoration of the unique ecosystems and wildlife of South Florida among our highest priorities," Salazar said. "It is important for me to see these areas personally and meet with the dedicated professionals with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service who do such an outstanding job of managing them."
The tour was part of Salazar's third trip to the Everglades as Interior secretary. He also spoke at the annual conference of the Everglades Coalition, the largest annual forum for Everglades's conservation and restoration.
In his remarks, he underscored the Obama administration's commitment to restoring the great River of Grass. In two years, for example, the administration has increased federal construction funding for Everglades Restoration by more than $660 million.
In addition, Salazar met with the Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative and announced a partner-driven effort to work with private landowners, conservation groups and federal, tribal, state and local agencies develop a new 150,000-acre national wildlife refuge and conservation area, the Everglades National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
As part of his tour, Salazar toured National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The federally endangered Key deer, a smaller cousin of the white-tailed deer, has rebounded from a population of just 50 in 1950 to more than 500 today.
In the past two years, the refuge began integrating on-the-ground research to improve the prescribed burning program. This benefits the Key deer and other wildlife and their fire-dependent habitats, while protecting lives and properties from the threat of wildfire.
Salazar also toured the EcoDiscovery Center in Key West. The center, which promotes resource conservation and stewardship across the Keys, is sponsored and operated by NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and South Florida Water Management district.
"Working with our many federal, state, local and non-profit partners, we continue to make great progress in conserving these unique island ecosystems, where the Caribbean meets North America," he said.