Process Marks New Approach to Land Conservation; Proposal Includes New Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with private landowners, conservation groups and federal, tribal, state and local agencies to develop a new national wildlife refuge and conservation area to preserve the community's ranching heritage and conserve the headwaters and fish and wildlife of the Everglades.
"The Everglades rural working ranch landscapes are an important piece of our nation's history and economy, and this initiative would work to ensure that they remain vital for our future," Secretary Salazar said. "The partnerships being formed would protect and improve water quality north of Lake Okeechobee, restore wetlands, and connect existing conservation lands and important wildlife corridors to support the greater Everglades restoration effort."
The Service, along with its partners, is conducting a preliminary study to establish a new National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area of approximately 150,000 acres of important environmental and cultural landscapes in the Kissimmee River Valley south of Orlando. The proposed area includes 50,000 acres for potential purchase, and an additional 100,000 acres that could be protected through conservation easements and cooperative agreements, keeping the land in private ownership. The Service will only work with willing sellers to purchase land rights.
"This is an important first step aimed at preserving and protecting thousands of acres vital to the Everglades," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who joined Secretary Salazar in today's announcement. "Projects like this will ensure future generations will be able to benefit from and enjoy the River of Grass."
Salazar also announced that, as part of the ongoing community dialogue, the public will be invited to participate in a series of workshops on the proposal in January and February.
"This initiative will be rooted in partnership with the local communities from start to finish, and I look forward to hearing from those who value these landscapes for everything from recreation, to ranching, to seeking solitude" Salazar said. "This proposal should stand as a model for our 21st century approach to land conservation that is science-based, partner-driven, and takes into account working landscapes and entire ecosystems."
"We have been working with various easement programs since 1990," said Cary Lightsey of the Lightsey Cattle Company. "They all have been win-win situations and we have never looked back. It makes us feel good that we are providing green space and wildlife habitat for future generations. I appreciate this proposal. I don't see my grandchildren coming back and questioning why we preserved the landscape."
In addition to improving water quality, the proposed conservation area and refuge would protect important habitat for 88 federal and state listed species, including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, whooping crane, Everglade snail kite and the Eastern indigo snake. It will also link to approximately 690,000 acres of partner-conserved lands.
More than a dozen partners are working together through the Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative on the proposed refuge and conservation area including the following organizations: Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services; Florida Department of Environmental Protection; Florida Division of State Lands; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Osceola County Parks Division; South Florida Water Management District; National Wildlife Refuge Association; The Nature Conservancy; U.S. Air Force - Avon Park Air Force Range; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Natural Resource Conservation Service. Their efforts are part of a larger conservation effort across south-central Florida.
A final plan for the Everglades Headwaters proposal is expected by the end of this year. Learn more by visiting www.fws.gov/southeast/greatereverglades.