Federal officials unveiled a formal proposal Wednesday to spend more than $600 million for a 150,000-acre wildlife refuge in Central Florida that's designed to protect the northern headwaters of the Everglades.
That land is now mostly occupied by cattle ranches, some of them held by the same family for generations. The plans by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service call for leaving those ranchers still occupying at least two-thirds of the refuge. Instead of buying their land outright, the government would just buy the development rights.
The ranchers could continue using their land for ranching and growing crops — and even allowing hunters to shoot deer and other wildlife in what would then be a wildlife refuge.
Federal officials don't consider that a contradiction, said Charlie Pelizza, who has helped spearhead the planning effort.
"There's a long tradition of hunting on national wildlife refuges," he said. Hunters "have just as much of a vested interest in conservation as anyone else."
Federal officials want to create the refuge as a way to preserve habitat for such species as the Florida panther and black bear and protect areas that recharge the aquifer — while not killing jobs.
"The primary focus of this program is working with the ranchers on this landscape," Pelizza said during a news conference at the Disney Wilderness Preserve.
One rancher at the news conference, Mike Adams, praised the plan because it "does do a lot for the area — and it keeps people employed, which is critical."
This is a separate initiative from one announced last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $100 million buying development rights on another 24,000 acres in the northern Everglades. The goal of that project is not preserving ranchland, but rather restoring land to its original wetland condition to clean up the flow of runoff to Lake Okeechobee.
When federal officials held public hearings on the proposed refuge this year, they were surprised to see their plan had sparked a strong backlash against what opponents labeled "another government land grab."
Some of the most determined opponents owned land in a Polk County area known as River Ranch, which had been included on the original "study area" map. The new map specifically excludes land in River Ranch. Other opponents were hunters worried about losing access.
At this point, the agency has no money for 100,000 acres of conservation easements and 50,000 acres of purchases. Instead, once the plan is approved, it would apply for money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which consists of the money oil and gas companies pay in royalties for leasing federal property both offshore and on land. Federal officials say buying the refuge property is likely to take 20 years or so.
The agency plans to hold two public hearings on the new plan on Sept. 24 in Avon Park and Oct. 1 in Kissimmee, and will accept written comments until Oct. 24.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.