WESTON —The Obama administration wants to create a sprawling new national wildlife refuge north of Lake Okeechobee, a proposal intended to preserve not only the ecologically rich prairie bordering the Kissimmee River but also the livelihoods of ranchers who have worked much of the land for decades.
The plan, unveiled Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, also would expand the scope and approach of Everglades restoration, protecting a swath of the Everglades' original headwaters from suburbs marching steadily southward from Orlando, and potentially helping stem the flow of farm and suburban pollution into Lake Okeechobee.
The plan envisions the outright purchase of about 50,000 acres from willing sellers. Another 100,000 acres would be targeted for easements or other conservation agreements that — unlike in a national park — would allow continued agricultural use but perpetually restrict most development.
For now, the proposal lacks a detailed map and any money. But even with costs easily running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Salazar is confident the idea will win support in Washington.
"The Everglades are unique," he said. "They are probably one of the most important ecosystems we have in the United States."
Environmentalists attending the 26th annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Weston, where Salazar outlined the proposal Friday evening, praised the proposal, and said they hope it is only the first of more refuges to come.
"We've got a very big and exciting vision," said Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon of Florida, one of several groups that for months have been quietly pushing for the White House to expand protection for what remains of the historic Everglades.
In addition to what would be called the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, Draper said activists are urging the administration to expand the existing Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida and to create a third refuge in between, with the goal of creating wildlife corridors that help species such as the Florida panther expand their range and population.
Adam Putnam, Florida's newly elected agriculture commissioner, lauded the refuge proposal in his talk to the coalition.
"You can't restore the lower Everglades as long as you've got problems in the Northern Everglades," he said. "It all rolls down hill."
By that, he meant the flow of phosphorous, a damaging nutrient that runs off farms, ranches and yards and into Lake Okeechobee, the heavily polluted heart of the Everglades ecosystem. Cleaning up the lake, and water flowing in the Everglades, remains one of the biggest and most expensive challenges in Everglades restoration.
The state has already spent more than $1.6 billion on a network of pollution treatment marshes but nutrient levels flowing from them remain higher than the super-low concentration scientists say is essential to protecting native plants.
With dwindling budgets for buying land, Jeff Danter, state director of The Nature Conservancy, said a buffer of agricultural lands, managed with the goal of improving water quality, offered the best and most affordable hope for protecting both the lake and the Everglades.
"If we can create a viable ranch economy, it's going to stop the threat of development," he said.
State and federal agencies have been working with ranchers for decades on conservation programs but recently, the efforts have been stepped up.
After two years of political and legal battles, state water managers closed a $197 million deal with the U.S. Sugar Corp., with plans to eventually convert the 26,800 acres of sugar fields and citrus groves into reservoirs and water pollution treatment marshes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also agreed to a far less controversial $89 million deal to preserve almost 26,000 acres of ranch land. Four owners will keep the land rights but agree to protect the wetlands in the Fisheating Creek watershed, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee.
As a first step, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will look for promising parcels in a 4.5 million acre study area extending from the outskirts through the Kissimmee River Valley down to Lake Okeechobee, a massive swath that includes portions of Polk, Osceola, Indian River, Okeechobee and Highlands counties.
After conducting public workshops this month and next, the Service hopes to have a final plan, and specific map, by September.
The proposal, which has been under discussion for months, already has support from some ranchers.
Cary Lightsey, whose Lightsey Cattle Co. is working with Interior officials on the plan, said he has had conservation easements on his land since 1990.
"They have all been win-win situations and we have never looked back," he said in a statement provided by the Interior Department. "It makes us feel good that we are providing green space and wildlife habitat for future generations."
Salazar called the public-and-private mix a new model for land conservation, one built on partnering with existing landowners to protect their economic interests along with the environment.
"We're not going to condemn anybody's property," he said. "It's not going to be a federal land grab."
It could take years to actually create the refuge, even if Congress does provide funding, which historically has come in small amounts for refuge land buys.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said there was "desperate need'' for more federal dollars but he also acknowledged that partisan battles and the shifting political landscape in Congress could pose hurdles to both the refuge and existing Everglades restoration programs.
"These are the times we live in," Nelson said. "We'll just have to fight those battles."