Land bank for Florida panthers could be worth millions to family

Last month a South Florida family announced it was setting aside 4,000 acres of ranch land for saving the Florida panther, making headlines across the state. However, the announcement left out a few details about the new Panther Passage Conservation Bank:

• Panthers don't actually live on the property. A few have passed through, mostly headed north because they're being crowded out of South Florida.

• The 4,000 acres are still owned by the same family that has owned it since George Milicevic Sr. bought it in 1947. They did not donate or sell the property to the government. They just promised the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they wouldn't do anything to make it less attractive to panthers. But they can still keep 500 cattle on it and conduct their ranching business the way they have for six decades.

• Because they promised to preserve a ranch where panthers do not live, the wildlife service — the federal agency charged with protecting panthers — will allow the owners to sell "credits" to developers, miners and anyone else looking for permission to destroy panther habitat anywhere else in South Florida, including the areas where the panthers do live.

According to the owners' permit application, they anticipate selling credits to "developers of all sizes, primarily on the southwest coastal areas."

The average price per credit is about $1,500, according to Desmond Duke, whose company is marketing the credits for Milicevic's heirs. Because they have been granted 96,000 of what are officially known as "panther habitat units" to sell, that means the panther business could be worth about $144 million to the family.

"It's kind of a cool deal," said Brett DuBois of Panthercredits.com, who helped the Milicevic family convert their ranch into a conservation bank and now gets a percentage of every credit that's sold. The land is worth $713,760, according to tax records. "Everybody comes out on top."

Agency officials agree, contending that this property is as important to the future of the species as the land where panthers live now.

Milicevic, a Serbian immigrant, arrived in Florida in 1922 with a few dollars in his pocket from working in an Illinois coal mine, said his son, George Milicevic Jr. Twenty-five years later he owned citrus groves and a ranch in Lake Wales and bought property north of Lake Okeechobee to expand his cattle holdings.

The place has never been logged or drained, said Milicevic, "so most of the land, 75 percent of it, is in its native state, like the way it was 500 years ago." But he said he has never seen a panther there.

When the elder Milicevic bought his land, the panther, which had once roamed the Southeast, was already becoming scarce. By the time it was declared the state animal in 1982, an inbred remnant of 20 to 30 clung to the remaining wilderness.

Now there are about 100 roaming the forests and swamps south of the Caloosahatchee River, where what's left of their habitat is being converted into subdivisions, mines and farms. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency in charge of enforcing the Endangered Species Act, has not officially objected to any development in panther habitat since 1993.

In 2002, the agency convened a group of experts to map the state animal's remaining habitat and recommend ways to save it.

The panel divided the land into three zones: the 1.1-million acre Primary Zone, where the panthers now live; the 768,000-acre Secondary Zone, where they could someday live if the land were restored; and the 300,000-acre Dispersal Zone, which young male panthers travel through if they cross the Caloosahatchee headed into Central Florida.

The group strongly recommended that any development allowed in the Primary Zone be offset by saving land in that same zone, not swapped for property elsewhere — especially in the Dispersal Zone.

"We all agreed that it is a good idea to keep a corridor to the river open ... but not at the expense of Primary panther habitat, especially when there is no strong evidence that the panther would ever benefit at all from it," one of the panther panel members, Jane Comiskey, said in an e-mail to the Times.

But the Milicevics' Panther Passage Conservation Bank is in the Dispersal Zone, and it's selling credits in the Primary Zone.

That happened because "we are more concerned about development in the Dispersal Zone," explained George Dennis of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversaw the permit for the new conservation bank. "We have to have that corridor to move the panthers north of the river."

Dennis contended that the Primary Zone is so much larger than the Dispersal Zone that very little of the development there can be made up for with credits bought in the Dispersal Zone.

State officials once targeted the Milicevics' land for purchase through the Florida Forever program, but ran short of money. George Milicevic Jr. said his family nearly sold the property to developers in 2005, but the deal fell through.

So far the new conservation bank has made one credit sale — to the taxpayers.

The Florida Department of Transportation paid more than $2 million for credits from the new Panther Passage Conservation Bank to make up for paving over land now occupied by the state animal.

The DOT's purchase isn't aimed at making up for one particular road project. Instead, it will be held until needed for future projects that wipe out panther habitat, a DOT spokeswoman explained.

This is the second — and largest — bank for panthers that the agency has authorized, but the first one outside the Primary Zone.

Federal records show other would-be banks are vying for agency permission to open banks in the Dispersal Zone as well.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Land bank for Florida panthers could be worth millions to family 02/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 11:12am]

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