A decade into the Everglades restoration project, one thing is clear: For this to work, it takes land — and the more, the better. That's why the federal government's announcement this month that it would spend $89 million to preserve 26,000 acres in the northern Everglades was so important. Putting cleaner water into that basin is the first step toward restoring Florida's River of Grass.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would acquire easements on five ranches along Fisheating Creek, a rural watershed in southern Highlands County, north of Lake Okeechobee. The area is the headwaters of the Everglades; protecting it from development and restoring it is essential for clean water to filter south into the Everglades basin. The owners of the ranches will keep title to the land and be allowed to graze cattle, though they will need permits. The USDA also will work with the Nature Conservancy, the landowners and the South Florida Water Management District to restore and monitor the property and promote more sustainable land use and wildlife practices.
The transaction is historic in its sheer size. More important, the government is preserving an entire corridor stretching from Central to South Florida. These ranch lands are vital open spaces for natural habitat and a range of rare and threatened animals, from the Florida panther and black bear to the bald eagle. By preserving the natural hydrology and diversity of the landscape, the federal government puts the pieces in place for restoration to continue for the long term.
Cleaning the headwaters that flow south into the Everglades is essential for improving the water quality in South Florida. The land deal will put cleaner water into the entire Okeechobee basin. It will build on state and federal spending toward the cleanup effort. It provides a template for ending harmful agricultural practices and improving those in operation elsewhere. And it puts more land into the preservation bank. This is the comprehensive approach the Everglades needs if there is ever to be hope for its restoration.