As Florida leaders continue to defend the deterioration of the state's waterways, the federal government continues to clean them up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's announcement last week that it would spend $100 million to buy development rights on working agricultural land north of the Everglades is a boon for the environment and tourism. It is also an important step to providing South Florida with the drinking water the region will need to grow.
The money will be open to farmers and ranchers in four counties — Highlands, Glades, Hendry and Okeechobee — in exchange for them providing conservation easements to 24,000 acres of farmland. That will restrict development along the northern and western banks of Lake Okeechobee — reserving the land permanently for agriculture and open space — and help restore the wetlands that filter pollution that now ultimately flows into Florida's extraordinary River of Grass. The easements also will connect private and public lands into a larger conservation corridor from the Kissimmee River south to the Everglades, helping to sustain the habitats and food supply for a range of animals, from the Florida black bear to the endangered panther.
The Obama administration deserves credit for continuing to focus the nation's conservation resources in a targeted way in these tight economic times. By setting aside land and restoring the wetlands, the government can target pollution at its source, creating a domino benefit as the basin flows to South Florida. The plan also brings private farmers and ranchers into the cleanup as willing partners, giving them a stake in the conservation effort. That can only help to bolster public awareness and support for Everglades restoration over the long term.
Everglades cleanup has never been solely about wildlife or the environment but how to protect both even as Florida provides for an expanding population. The land deal will protect fishing and tourism and help South Florida obtain the clean drinking water it needs to attract new residents and industry. It keeps farms in private hands and helps preserve entire communities dependent on a vibrant ranching economy. And it builds on federal efforts last year to preserve another 26,000 acres of land north of Lake Okeechobee. These moves will give the state a new avenue for continuing the Everglades cleanup without having to rely on costly land purchases. And the investments come even as the state continues to challenge the federal government's call for cleaner water standards in its lakes, rivers and estuaries. This is a victory for Florida's economy and environment that will pay dividends for generations.