KISSIMMEE, Fla. - The federal government will spend $89 million to preserve almost 26,000 acres of wild ranch land in a northern swath of the Florida Everglades in one of the biggest expenditures of its kind, officials said Monday.
Under the plan, the federal government will acquire the right to protect wetlands in the Fisheating Creek watershed located in Florida's rural Highlands County, although the four ranching families who own the properties will keep title to the land. The outlay represents a quarter of what the federal government will spend this year as part of its Wetlands Reserve Program. It also is one of the largest contiguous easement purchases in the history of the program.
The program was set up 20 years ago to encourage private landowners to retire agricultural land so that wetlands can be restored or protected, and it typically makes purchases of around 250 acres a year per state. However, that average is around 1,700 acres a year in Florida, said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"This is huge," Merrigan said. "It is extremely significant in what we do. It's a big piece of our national effort."
The four ranching families and companies that own the properties have powerful political and economic ties.
They are Westby Corp., which is controlled by the Finn Caspersen family of Venice, Fla.; the Doyle Carlton family, which has produced a Florida governor and state senator; the Blue Head Ranch, which is controlled by the family of state senator J.D. Alexander, whose grandfather was Ben Hill Griffin Jr., one of Florida's most famous land barons; and the H.L. Clark family.
The landowners will still be able to graze cattle on the land,although they now will need certain permits from the government.
The Fisheating Creek watershed was a top priority for protection and restoration because it drains into Lake Okeechobee, which then continues to flow into the southern part of the Everglades. The new acquisition will form a conservation corridor stretching from central Florida down to Everglades National Park in South Florida and improve water quality in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, Merrigan said.
"You can't repair the lower Everglades without repairing the northern Everglades," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla.
There also are 19 different species that will benefit from the acquisition, including the Florida panther and the bald eagle, Merrigan said.
The entire Everglades once covered more than 6,250 square miles, but that figure has shrunk by half. The land has been replaced with homes, farms and a 2,000-mile grid of drainage canals.
In South Florida, water managers have developed a plan supported by Gov. Charlie Crist to pay $536 million for 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in an effort to restore that part of the Everglades. Critics call it a waste of taxpayer money that will only slow other key restoration efforts. A challenge to the plan is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.