OKEECHOBEE, FL–(ENEWSPF)–January 9, 2014. As part of the Obama Administration’s sustained commitment to restoring and protecting the Everglades, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today met with ranchers and private landowners in the Kissimmee River Valley to discuss next steps for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. During the visit, Jewell highlighted the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the landscape-level conservation effort, which will protect key Florida habitat and the region’s rural way of life.
Following a tour of a 12,000-acre cattle ranch owned by David “Lefty” Durando, Jewell announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working hand in hand with local ranchers and other partners, will begin implementation later this month of land acquisitions and the purchase of conservation easements from willing sellers for the refuge and conservation area. The announcement came during Jewell’s second official visit to the Everglades since being sworn in as Secretary less than one year ago.
“For the past two years, we have worked with more than a dozen partners, including ranchers and other private landowners, to develop a refuge that will conserve one of America’s last grassland and longleaf pine savannah landscapes while preserving the traditional way of life cherished by those who live in this area,” said Jewell. “Thanks to the support shown in Congress and funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, we are on the cusp of making the first offers for land acquisitions that will not only provide valuable habitat for wildlife but also protect the headwaters of the Everglades.”
The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area was established in January 2012 with a 10-acre donation from The Nature Conservancy and support from local partners, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Wildlife Refuge Association and The Conservation Fund.
Based on a landscape-scale approach, the new refuge and conservation area will conserve habitat needed for the survival of more than 200 imperiled fish, wildlife and plants, including the Florida panther, Florida scrub-jay and Florida grasshopper sparrow. The Everglades, which receives water from the Kissimmee River Valley, will benefit from the conservation and restoration of its headwaters with enhanced water quality, quantity and storage.
Following the tour of Durando’s cattle ranch, Jewell echoed her praise of Durando’s partnership in establishing the refuge, which she highlighted in an October speech at the National Press Club spelling out her vision to conserve working landscapes.
“Lefty is a leader among more than 40 landowners who have expressed interest in conservation easements, and we are ready to move forward. What is happening here in Florida is a perfect example of the local community coming together to preserve this working landscape to benefit the environment and the economy,” Jewell said. “Our goal is not to set aside a monolithic block of land, but to create a patchwork that will stitch together a network of existing conservation lands within the Kissimmee River Basin.”
The funding for easements and land acquisitions for the refuge will come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress established in 1964 to use revenues from offshore oil and gas developments to enhance parks and open spaces throughout the country.
Jewell noted that only once in the past 50 years has the Congress fully allocated these revenues for the intended purpose and called on lawmakers to approve President Obama’s proposal to do so in the department’s FY 2015 budget.
“The extraordinary conservation partnership we are seeing in the Everglades is a prime example of how LWCF funds can improve the quality of life for all Americans,” she said.
When fully completed, the refuge and conservation area will span 150,000 acres north of Lake Okeechobee. Two-thirds of the acreage, or 100,000 acres, will be protected through conservation easements. Under easements, private landowners retain ownership of their land, as well as the right to work the land to raise cattle or crops. The easements would ensure the land could not be developed.
While in Florida, Jewell is also meeting with the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe. She will deliver keynote remarks at the 29th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Naples, Fla. on Friday evening.