Cattle ranching has been a way of life in Florida since the 1500s and Florida is always near the top in beef production nationally. Ranches in the Northern Everglades may range from 5,000 acres to 105,000 acres, with tens of thousands of cow-calf pairs grazing amid the wet and dry prairie of central Florida surrounded by bald eagles, gopher tortoise, and the critically endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. These ranches also support game species, from white tailed deer to Osceola turkey, and provide habitat for wildlife as diverse as the Everglades snail kite, alligators, black bear, and the endangered Florida panther – the last wild cougar found east of the Mississippi.
Today, many multi-generational landowners in central and south Florida are wrestling with the financial realities of owning large landholdings much more valuable for real estate development than for continued agricultural use. This has forced some historic ranches to be broken up and subdivided, a loss to both agricultural sustainability and wildlife habitat. The public benefit of these large intact lands in the heart of Florida’s Northern Everglades goes well beyond their contributions to agriculture and wildlife. The Northern Everglades provide water supply to more than 8 million people in South Florida. Protecting and restoring wetland systems provides a natural filter and water containment process that complements, and may reduce the need for, billions of dollars in built infrastructure to improve water quality. This water storage and filtration capacity in the north is essential to the integrity of the southern Everglades system.
In January 2012, the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area was established with widespread community support. What might have been viewed as a negative in some landscapes was viewed as an opportunity to many long-time ranching families. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has the authority to acquire up to 100,000 acres in conservation easements and 50,000 acres in fee acquisitions. Willing sellers representing more than 500,000 acres have already expressed interest in pursuing conservation easement sales. Lands where conservation easements are purchased will remain in private ownership and in agricultural production while continuing to provide the important wildlife habitat and water filtration services. Two locally-led groups were formed to help support this effort first the Northern Everglades Alliance which was later supplanted by the Florida Conservation Group, both of which include or included diverse conservation perspectives and local landowner leadership.
The partners focused work in the Northern Everglades has brought together multiple agencies, private landowners, sportsmen’s groups, and non-government organizations to accomplish a vision of protecting and restoring ranching, water and wildlife resources in the Northern Everglades. Partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Defense, Central Everglades Planning Process, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.