Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $100 million in financial assistance to acquire permanent easements from eligible landowners in four counties and assist with wetland restoration on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades Watershed. The wetland restoration will reduce the amount of surface water leaving the land, slowing water runoff and the concentration of nutrients entering the public water management system and ultimately Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. This is the largest amount of funding Florida has ever received for projects in the same watershed through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) in a single year.
"Protecting and restoring the Northern Everglades is critical not just to Floridians, but to all Americans," said Vilsack. "Today's announcement demonstrates the Obama Administration's strong commitment to conserve our national treasures, enhance the quality and quantity of our water, and secure the economic opportunities afforded by a healthy Everglades ecosystem. This announcement would not be possible without our local conservation partners and our relationship with private landowners who play a critical role in restoring wetlands and protecting wildlife in this unique habitat."
Vilsack also participated in a signing ceremony with A.J. Suarez of Hendry County Nursery Farms-a landowner who will benefit from the funding. Suarez signed an agreement with USDA to start the process to acquire the easement rights to 3,782 acres. After the signing ceremony, Vilsack toured the 550-acre Winding Waters Natural Area, a site restored with $1.5 million from WRP in 2007. The nature area, owned by Palm Beach County, is home to bird species such as little blue heron, snowy egret and great egret, white ibis and Florida sandhill crane. It also contains large areas of pine flatwoods, Cyprus forests, freshwater marshes and wet prairies.
Under WRP, landowners sell development rights to land and place it in a conservation easement that permanently maintains that land as agriculture and open space. USDA plans to purchase these permanent easements from eligible private landowners and assist with wetland restoration in Glades, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee Counties. The easements will contribute to the connection of public and private lands and help form a conservation corridor from the Kissimmee River to Everglades National Park. Easements on existing conservation lands provide the large open spaces, food resources and connectivity needed to sustain wide-ranging animals like the federally endangered Florida panther. Other species found on these lands include the crested caracara, Florida black bear, red-cockaded woodpecker and the whooping crane.
USDA continues to demonstrate its commitment to restoring the Northern Everglades through increased financial and technical assistance to landowners. USDA has provided a total of $189 million in WRP funding during the past two fiscal years to help farmers protect and restore wetlands in the Northern Everglades. Last fiscal year, USDA obligated $89 million through WRP to acquire easements on almost 26,000 acres of land in the Fisheating Creek Watershed, located in remote Highlands County. Four landowners on five adjoining ranches enrolled the nearly 26,000 acres into the program, making it one of the largest contiguous easement acquisitions in WRP's history. An additional 12,000 acres were acquired through WRP in other counties, bringing the total potential acres acquired since 2010 to more than 60,000.
Placing these acres into permanent easements supports the Obama Administration's commitment to protecting private lands through its America's Great Outdoors Initiative. Working with conservation partners and others, USDA helps communities find local solutions to natural resource issues such as protecting a large-scale ecosystem like the Northern Everglades. Placing easements on working agricultural land like those announced today helps improve watershed health, the vitality of agricultural lands and aesthetics, and the economies of local communities.
"Our working lands provide abundant food, fuel and fiber and are an essential piece of vibrant and diverse rural communities that are part of the fabric of our nation," Vilsack said "Well-managed private lands also support healthy ecosystems that provide clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other environmental services that benefit the public."
For information about WRP, please visit www.nrcs.usda.gov. Click on Programs and Services on the left side of the page. Click on Alphabetical Listing of Programs and scroll down to the Wetlands Reserve Program.
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