KISSIMMEE — The federal government will spend $89 million to preserve almost 26,000 acres of wild ranchland in a northern swath of the Everglades in one of the biggest expenditures of its kind, officials said Monday.
Under the plan, the federal government will acquire the right to protect wetlands in the Fisheating Creek watershed in rural Highlands County, although the four ranching families that own the properties will keep title to the land. The outlay represents a quarter of what the federal government will spend this year as part of its Wetlands Reserve Program. It also is one of the largest contiguous easement purchases in the history of the program.
The program was set up 20 years ago to encourage private landowners to retire agricultural land so that wetlands can be restored or protected, and it typically makes purchases of around 250 acres a year per state. However, that average is around 1,700 acres a year in Florida, said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary at the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The four ranching families and companies that own the properties have powerful political and economic ties.
They are Westby Corp., which is controlled by the Finn Caspersen family of Venice; the Doyle Carlton family, which has produced a Florida governor and state senator; the Blue Head Ranch, which is controlled by the family of state Sen. J.D. Alexander, whose grandfather was Ben Hill Griffin Jr., one of Florida's most famous land barons; and the H.L. Clark family.
The landowners will still be able to graze cattle on the land, although they now will need certain permits.
The Fisheating Creek watershed was a top priority for protection and restoration because it drains into Lake Okeechobee, which then continues to flow into the southern part of the Everglades. The acquisition will form a conservation corridor stretching from Central Florida down to Everglades National Park in South Florida and improve water quality in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, Merrigan said.
"You can't repair the lower Everglades without repairing the northern Everglades," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.
Nineteen species, including the Florida panther and the bald eagle, will benefit from the acquisition, Merrigan said.
The entire Everglades once covered more than 6,250 square miles, but that figure has shrunk by half.
In South Florida, water managers have developed a plan supported by Gov. Charlie Crist to pay $536 million for 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in an effort to restore that part of the Everglades. A challenge to the plan is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.