USDA Offers $100 Million for Everglades Wetlands Conservation

WASHINGTON, DC, August 15, 2011 (ENS) – To protect the Northern Everglades Watershed, the federal government will provide $100 million in financial assistance from the Wetlands Reserve Program of the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The funding will go to acquire permanent conservation easements from eligible landowners in four Florida counties and to assist with wetland restoration on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades Watershed.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the funding on Thursday before taking a swamp buggy tour of the Winding Waters Natural Area in West Palm Beach with state and local officials.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, visits the Winding Waters Natural Area, Florida, with state officials, August 11, 2011. (Photo by Lance Cheung courtesy USDA)

“It’s an important day for the United States. It’s an important day for Florida,” Vilsack said. “We all benefit when we conserve our natural resources.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers easement programs to landowners who want to maintain or enhance their land to benefit agriculture and/or the environment. In this case, the funding will be offered to landowners in Glades, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee counties. All NRCS easement programs are voluntary.

Florida elected officials praised USDA efforts to protect the Northern Everglades, particularly since the vast wetland is a major source of fresh drinking water.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said, “This is a win-win that helps restore the Northern Everglades while allowing Florida ranching traditions to continue.”

Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who has represented Florida’s 23 District in Congress since 1993, said, “This latest drought we’ve experienced demonstrates how crucial a reliable supply of clean drinking water is for Florida. Unless we address our water infrastructure problems soon, water shortages will become a larger crisis for the state.”

“With this funding, it is my sincere hope that we can better address the water infrastructure problems to ensure Florida has a stable supply of clean water,” said Hastings.

Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick said, “Conservation programs provided by NRCS are invaluable and production agriculture stands ready to do its part to maintain green space, wildlife habitat and freshwater recharge areas. The farmer’s and rancher’s role has never been more important.”

Environmental Defense Fund called the $100 million in funding “a smart ecological and economic investment” that “demonstrates why maintaining funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program and other USDA conservation programs is critical.”

Northern Everglades watershed (Photo by Lance Cheung courtesy USDA)

Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director for Environmental Defense Fund and a former staff member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, “Involving private landowners in these kinds of landscape-scale efforts is exactly what we need to do if we’re going to be effective in accomplishing our most important conservation goals, including healthy ecosystems that provide clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other public benefits.”

In June, over the opposition of more than 50 agricultural and conservation groups, the U.S. House of Representatives approved nearly $1 billion in cuts to USDA conservation programs, including the Wetlands Reserve Program, in the agriculture appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012.

The Senate is expected to develop its version of the appropriations bill this fall, and conservation groups are urging the Senate to reject the House cuts.

“We cannot effectively engage private landowners in big initiatives like this one without continued, robust funding for voluntary, incentive-based programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program,” said Hopper. “It’s imperative that Congress not cut funding for these programs in the coming months, as members of the House and Senate continue to look for ways to reduce the federal budget deficit.”

The special congressional debt-reduction “super committee” tasked with finding roughly $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade could propose additional cuts to USDA’s voluntary conservation incentives programs, particularly if members of the committee cannot reach agreement on ways to increase revenue.

Keith Fountain, Florida Protection Director with The Nature Conservancy, said, “The benefits from the Wetland Reserve Program are perhaps the broadest of any USDA conservation program – permanent conservation of habitat, continued private ownership and economic benefit from cattle ranching, and wetland restoration that revives lost habitats and retains and cleans water for the people of central and south Florida.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.