The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program has agreed to pay approximately $89 million to acquire permanent easements on nearly 26,000 contiguous acres in Florida’s Northern Everglades Watershed.
“The Northern Everglades is one of the last frontiers for large-scale land conservation in Florida, so we are excited about this,” says Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “The $89 million the federal government is investing in this project this year will do wondrous things.”
In some sections, the government will restore and improve the wetlands; while in others it will ensure they are maintained free of development and available for migratory birds and recharge. Once the wetland restoration is complete, officials expect to see improvement in the quality of the water draining into the Everglades and nearby habitat within two years. The landowners will hire contractors to perform the restoration work.
The voluntary Wetlands Reserve Program worked with four landowners and local organizations to secure easements on five ranches along Fisheating Creek in remote Highlands County, about 130 mi south of Orlando. It is the largest easement acquisition in the history of the program, which traditionally purchases about 250 acres per state annually. In the past, Florida has received an average of about 1,700 acres per year through the program, Merrigan says.
“It’s important for water quality purposes and it benefits not just people in the immediate area where the land is being put into easement, but people throughout the watershed,” Merrigan says. “It’s important for wildlife habitat. There are 19 species endangered or threatened that we think will be positively affected.”
Merrigan says grass-roots supporters of the Everglades have been working on the acquisition for a number of years. The Nature Conservancy and the South Florida Water Management District partnered with NRCS on this project and will work with federal officials on the acquisition and wetland restoration planning and monitoring.