Perspective: Cattle ranches are key to preserving Florida for all of us Florida's final frontier

Published Jan. 30, 2017

Beyond our beaches and theme parks lies a Florida still unknown to many — Florida's ranchlands. Off the beaten track, these lands are our last frontier. I consider myself blessed to live and work as a rancher in this magical landscape we call Florida.

We are the country's first cattle state. We started in 1521 with the introduction of cattle by Ponce de Leon. Today our state is home to five of the top 10 cow/calf operations, and we have more of the top 25 than any other state. Nearly half of Florida's agricultural land is involved in cattle production. Cattle ranching is vital to our state's economy and our nation's food security; it is a $3 billion industry in Florida, carried out on more than 5.5 million acres of land.

Ranchlands are also the protectors of our natural heritage and native wildlife. Much of Florida's cattle country is so wild it contains some of the highest biodiversity in the nation — plants and animals exist there that you will find in no other place. Florida ranches also protect many threatened and endangered species found nowhere else in the world. Florida ranchlands are critical to species such as the Florida panther and the Florida grasshopper sparrow, one of the nation's most critically endangered birds.

Our ranchlands are also critical for protecting our water supply. Florida's cattle ranches act as natural water storage systems; the wetlands on ranches maintain watershed functions including storing and treating storm and flood water and supplying clean drinking water to the millions living in urbanized areas.

However, Florida's ranch country is a disappearing landscape. Our natural and rural landscape is giving way to more development as people pour into the state, drawn in large part, ironically, by our natural beauty. We lose approximately 175,000 acres a year of our agricultural and native landscape to make room for the nearly 1,000 people a day who move to Florida, and we now have a population of 20 million people. A recent study by the University of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture and the nonprofit planning group 1,000 Friends of Florida predicted that development is on pace to cover more than a third of the state by 2050.

My family began ranching in Florida in 1855 and I am proud to continue the tradition, including at Strickland Ranch east of Bradenton. As a caretaker of the land, I have both the privilege and the obligation to protect the habitat and wildlife on our ranchlands. I also manage Blackbeard's Ranch, which borders the Myakka State Park in Manatee County. We are a cow/calf operation; the property contains slough systems that feed the Myakka River and drinking water downstream. The wildlife on the park also call our ranch home, and we manage our land to ensure high-quality habitat for our native species.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the University of Florida conduct wildlife research at our ranch. We work with the Florida Department of Agriculture on hydrological projects to ensure that the water flowing into the Myakka River is clean and pure. The ranch is also situated in one of the fastest-growing regions of the state. I've watched as development encroaches on the rural landscape and neighboring ranchlands give way to housing developments. I see it as my duty to ensure that our land stays as it is after we are gone, for the future of agriculture, for the health of the river and people downstream, and for the wildlife that depend on the ranch to survive.

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Out of necessity, Florida is a national leader in land protection. We have a long tradition of supporting programs that protect our natural lands and have shown that time and again at the ballot box. Conservation easements, which involve the purchase of development rights on a property and leave land in private ownership and on the tax rolls, are a cost-effective way to ensure land protection at a fraction of the cost of outright ownership. Easements are purchased at approximately 50 cents on the dollar; the land can never be developed and management is the responsibility of the landowner. Under a conservation easement, the landowner can continue sustainable land use practices such as ranching and must continue to maintain and manage the land for its natural resource values. In other words, the land stays as it is forever.

We are extremely fortunate to have two state programs that utilize conservation easements as a land protection tool. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, under the Department of Agriculture, focuses on the protection of valuable agricultural lands and ensuring sustainable agriculture through conservation easements.

Beginning in 2008, the program has been highly successful and has exploded in popularity among landowners. There are now 122 properties and 328,734 acres waiting to be protected under this program. Last year the program was funded at $35 million; this money will fund the protection of more than 16,000 acres of agricultural and natural lands. In the last several years, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet have protected (or have given approval to protect) more than 27,000 acres of land through this program. This ensures that these agricultural lands will continue to be a productive and critical part of our state's economy.

We also have the Florida Forever Program, Florida's flagship land protection program and a national model for land protection. This program, and its precursor P2000, were historically funded at $300 million a year since 1990. Since the recession, the funding for Florida Forever has dwindled; the program received just $15 million last year. Florida Forever is not just a land-buying program — a common misunderstanding in Florida. The program also uses conservation easements; these Florida Forever conservation easements are focused on protecting our highest quality natural resources, and projects are ranked for their natural resource qualities (not agricultural).

Despite the lack of funding, landowners continue to apply to put their properties on the list. There are more than 700,000 acres of land approved to be funded on the Florida Forever conservation easement list. All of these projects would employ voluntary, permanent conservation of private lands, many of which are working ranches with high-quality natural resources.

Landowners from North to South Florida are coalescing to advocate for conservation easement funding; the Florida Conservation Group represents over a million acres and we are growing. As ranchers invested in agriculture and the health of our state, we fully support funding conservation easements. The heart of our state is at stake; the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and conservation easements under Florida Forever are crucial for the health of our state. We will be calling on legislators and our governor to ensure these programs are supported as they need to be. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putman has asked for $50 million for the Rural and Family Lands program. We are asking for $100 million. We also support funding Florida Forever conservation easements at $100 million; $200 million is a small price to pay for the health of our state. We spend over $10 billion to fund the Department of Transportation, and we can certainly spend $200 million to protect land. Funding these conservation easement programs is an investment in Florida's future; they protect our state's water supply and quality, habitat and wildlife and maintain the agriculture that is a critical part of our state economy.

Jim Strickland is a cattle rancher, past president of the Florida Cattleman's Association, past chairman of the Florida Cattleman's Foundation, chairman of the National Cattleman's Political Action Committee and sits on the board of the Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park, Archbold Biological Station and numerous other agricultural and research committees. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.