Thanks to a last-minute South Florida land deal, the Florida panther has a more secure path to roam beyond its quickly shrinking home. Conservation easements on 1,270 acres in Glades County provide a crucial link for the official state animal to travel north, away from development. This deal is a model for future efforts to protect Florida wildlife, encouraging private owners to preserve land while costing the state virtually nothing in a time of tightening belts.
A partnership made up of the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other public and private groups this month snatched up a key piece of land along the Caloosahatchee River that had been headed for foreclosure the following day. The land, which has been observed as a crossing site for male panthers, had been owned by a Miami real estate company that had expressed interest in developing it. After the $6.65 million purchase, the land is now under private ownership, with a collection of conservation easements eliminating the possibility of development. This guarantees the panthers' ability to travel through the site.
The deal comes at a time when the state has little money to devote to conservation efforts. Funding for Florida Forever, a state-sponsored land-buying program, has been slashed. Public-private conservation easements offer the best option in a cash-strapped state that still prioritizes its biodiversity and natural beauty. By buying the development rights of a piece of land rather than the land itself, agencies will spend less while also leaving the land in responsible hands.
This is not to excuse the state of Florida from devoting attention and resources to conservation. State officials — and taxpayers — should continually recognize the importance of preserving for generations to come the beauty that sets Florida apart, and attracts so many tourists. But there is no harm in letting willing benefactors shoulder the load in a state that has been hit harder than most by the recession.
Allowing the Florida panther to freely roam beyond its threatened southern habitat is welcome news to any environmentally conscious Floridian. The fact that it was a budget-neutral achievement should inspire hope in all Floridians for the maintenance of the state's beauty, even when money is tight.