Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Planned

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, January 7, 2011 (ENS) – The federal government is looking for landowners in the Everglades headwaters area willing to sell land to the federal government for conservation easements that will protect an area of streams, lakes, wilderness and ranch lands north of Lake Okeechobee.

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 create a new national wildlife refuge and conservation area that will “preserve the community’s ranching heritage and conserve the headwaters and fish and wildlife of the Everglades.”

Under the $700 million proposal, the government would purchase about 50,000 acres for a new national wildlife refuge and protect another 100,000 acres through agreements with landowners.

Wet prairie in the Kissimmee River Valley (Photo by Trish Hartmann)

“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,” Salazar said.

The Service, along with its partners, is conducting a preliminary study to establish a new National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area of 150,000 acres of important environmental and cultural landscapes in the Kissimmee River Valley south of Orlando in central Florida.

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. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat 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.”

“We have been working with various easement programs since 1990,” said Cary Lightsey of the Lightsey Cattle Company, a cooperating rancher. “They all have been win-win situations and we have never looked back.”

A swan flies over the Everglades headwaters. (Photo by Don Stonehouse)

“It makes us feel good that we are providing green space and wildlife habitat for future generations,” Lightsey said. “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 habitat for 88 federal and state species listed as threatened or endangered, including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, whooping crane, Everglade snail kite and the Eastern indigo snake.

It will also link to about 690,000 acres of partner-conserved lands.

The proposal will be front and center this weekend at the annual Everglades Coalition conference in Weston, where environmentalists and elected officials will discuss progress on Everglades restoration. Secretary Salazar, Senator Nelson and former Governor Bob Graham will be in attendance.

The South Florida Water Management District is one of more than a dozen partners working on the proposed refuge and conservation area. SFWMD Governing Board Vice Chairman Jerry Montgomery today applauded the “bold” proposal.

Combined with last year’s federal investment to conserve 26,000 acres in the Northern Everglades, this effort builds on the momentum to deliver water quality improvements, water storage and environmental restoration benefiting all Floridians,” said Montgomery.

Other partners working together through the Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative include, the 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; the National Wildlife Refuge Association; The Nature Conservancy; U.S. Air Force – Avon Park Air Force Range; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 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.

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