After a century of development that often treated Florida as a swamp to be drained and subdivided into ever smaller pieces, it's amazing that we still have the opportunity to protect and showcase a relatively unbroken corridor of natural lands and waters from the outskirts of Orlando to Lake Okeechobee — the Everglades Headwaters. This may be our last chance. • I've spent much of the past six years traversing this part of our state, a place where cowboys ride and cattle graze, where bears roam and panthers prowl, where cranes glide and eagles soar. As a photographer, I set out to celebrate the people, places and wildlife — the living heritage of what I often call "Florida's last frontier." • And as an eighth-generation Floridian who comes from a long line of cattle ranchers, I believe in preserving this original Florida for the future. • That's what the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area could do. It proposes to protect 150,000 acres of ranchlands between the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and Lake Okeechobee.
The ambitious plan, drawn up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would buy development rights — conservation easements — from private ranches for 100,000 of those acres. It would leave the land in their hands to own and keep ranching but never develop. Up to 50,000 additional acres would be purchased outright.
While conservation easements are common in Florida, this is the first time that federal FWS would use them here. The agency is seeking public comments now through March 31.
If the project succeeds, it will make major strides toward restoring the Everglades and connecting green space, which is important for species to have room to thrive. One of my favorite aspects of this proposal is its heavy use of conservation easements. When done voluntarily with a willing landowner, they efficiently and effectively safeguard agricultural and environmental interests at the same time. They already protect hundreds of thousands of acres of natural lands.
"This initiative is aimed at preserving a rural working ranch landscape to protect and restore one of the great grassland and savanna landscapes of eastern North America," says U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "The partnerships being formed would protect and improve water quality north of Lake Okeechobee, restore wetlands, and connect existing conservation lands and important wildlife corridors to support the Everglades restoration effort."
I've made several trips to the Everglades Headwaters in the past month, twice with Elam Stoltzfus, who is making a documentary, Kissimmee Basin: Northern Everglades, that will air on PBS later this year. And I've seen firsthand how we have the chance to take action to protect these threatened landscapes.
The purpose of my most recent book, Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier, was to raise awareness of Florida ranches and their role in conservation. Many of my cousins are still full-time cowboys, and we want our heritage to continue.
It was rewarding for me to see Salazar so prominently extol the "rural working ranch landscape" and its importance for the health of the Everglades. In fact, some suggest that FWS should protect the full 150,000 acres through easements, allowing all of the land to remain in private ownership and reducing the scope of public investment. But not all owners are interested or able to continue managing the land for the long term.
My optimism for the Everglades Headwaters proposal was confronted by a surprising level of skepticism when I attended recent public hearings in Kissimmee and Okeechobee. There was a general mistrust of the federal government and concern that outsiders were coming to take away land and restrict recreational activities such as air boating.
Considering that all new conservation lands would be acquired from private owners — not currently open to public use — there would be no loss in land available for recreation. On the contrary, land purchased by FWS would open new areas for public use.
It's a complex debate, but the conservation plan is not about limiting recreation. It's a long-term effort to protect the most valuable natural lands and waters from development. Which neighbor is a greater threat to wild game populations and the ability to run an airboat day and night — a wildlife refuge or a new city?
On the other hand, some critics wonder if the government should be spending money, particularly in tough budget times, to buy development rights for land that might never be developed anyway. They should remember that much of Orlando was ranchland within the lifetime of most living Floridians and that much of the land surrounding the new community of the Villages was agricultural within the lifetime of current high school seniors. Destiny, Harmony and Farmton are all new cities being planned or built on agricultural land in our state today.
Much more rural land will likely be developed in the near future to accommodate the doubling of Florida's population that is projected by 2060. By paying for development rights now, we can enable landowners to protect natural lands and waters where they are of most benefit to us all. If we wait until development is more imminent, it could be too late. Inflated prices would make conservation nearly impossible and the ability to connect large landscapes could be lost.
Landscape-scale conservation efforts are typically controversial, and those responsible must be mindful of how they present their plans to the public. People who spoke in opposition at Okeechobee and Kissimmee saw a document showing the 1.7 million-acre study area as an outline on a map that encompassed the entire Northern Everglades watershed, including the town of Okeechobee and all the hunting camps near Lake Kissimmee. It's easy to understand how such a wide study area could make residents nervous.
The document did not communicate clearly enough that the proposed conservation plan would affect less than 10 percent of the study area — and that the actual new refuge would encompass less than 3 percent of the area on the map. Though the specific tracts aren't yet identified, there is no doubt that sustaining agriculture and green space in highest-priority areas of Everglades Headwaters still leaves the vast majority of private land open for other forms of economic development.
Government-led conservation plans have not always been easy on local residents. Genuine frustration with past national park, national forest and water management district actions may make it harder for people to see that the current proposal is new and different. FWS is using conservation easements for the first time in Florida, and participation is voluntary.
There is also skepticism about the federal government entering territory traditionally managed by state agencies. But through the Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative, FWS is really just helping state agencies achieve long-standing conservation plans they lack the funding to accomplish alone.
Take Florida Forever. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has previously identified 250,000 acres of high-priority conservation lands within the Everglades Headwaters study area. These are lands that have already been listed and ranked through a comprehensive public process with willing landowners. But Florida Forever has little money and cannot move forward without help.
The Everglades Headwaters project could invest as much as $700 million in federal funds in Florida over the next several years. This may seem like a lot to spend during a recession, but within the context of an already budgeted $12 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, it's a small price to protect the essential headwaters. As a rough estimate, the price paid for development rights for lands of high environmental value is often budgeted somewhere around half of the retail value of the land, though this could vary significantly based on assessed value, landscape context, conservation priority, zoning classification and zoning density.
I'd much rather see Everglades restoration accomplished by protecting ranchlands in the watershed than by spending even more money to blast storage basins in the aquifer and build high-intensity filtration systems that might not even work. Better to let nature perform as designed than impose highly engineered solutions that our grandchildren may have to pay the price for, as we are doing with the canals and levies our grandparents built.
Today, 7 million people live within the Everglades watershed. That number has doubled since 1970 and is projected to double again by 2060. As such, the most important reason to protect the Everglades Headwaters is water for people. Protecting the water supply will also help restore the Greater Everglades ecosystem, save the Florida panther and ensure a future for Florida agriculture.
There may never be a better time to help positively shape Florida's future. Thanks to years of hard work of landowners and conservationists, building protection for the Everglades Headwaters does not start from scratch. Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve, Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, Avon Park Air Force Range, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Catfish Creek State Park, the Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve — these are some of the cornerstones that the new National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Areas can tie together into a foundation strong enough to support the Everglades and the growing population of South Florida.
Today, more landowners than ever are willing to engage in conservation easements, providing opportunity to protect the most important lands and waters, and ensuring our ability to continue producing food. Agriculture is Florida's second-largest economic sector, creating a $100 billion annual impact while feeding our population and the world.
My concerns about the proposed refuge are these: As the program develops, it must continue to make protecting property rights and values the top priority. Voluntary participation largely ensures this, but if a ranch becomes part of the conservation area, what influence is there on the value of neighboring lands?
I also think FWS should consider working even more closely with the U.S. and Florida Departments of Agriculture and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as the Nature Conservancy and other private land trusts active in Florida. While FWS has experience with conservation easements in other states, these partners are experts in conservation easements in Florida and have long legacies of trusted work with local landowners.
What I like most about the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge is this: It is completely voluntary, only purchasing or paying for conservation easements from willing landowners while helping sustain the five-century-old tradition of Florida cattle ranching. Maintaining a viable cattle ranch is very difficult, even in the best economic times.
Rising productions costs, stricter regulations and high estate taxes all create pressure to intensify land use or sell for development. Paying landowners for their development rights is the best way I know to satisfy their financial needs while protecting water and wildlife for the benefit of all Floridians.