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Developers seek to build on preserved lands and taxpayers open wallets to buy land preserves

 Some of the thousands of acres of land bought for public preservation of natural spaces in the last few months will remain working cattle ranches
Florida Department Of Agriculture And Consumer Services
Some of the thousands of acres of land bought for public preservation of natural spaces in the last few months will remain working cattle ranches

Florida panthers will be losing more than 10 square miles of Western Everglades in which they currently roam if the builders get their way. Beloved endangered cougars are gaining ground thanks to preservation efforts that are costing taxpayers.

Florida panthers will be losing more than 10 square miles of Western Everglades in which they currently roam if the builders of a pair of proposed residential developments, with a combined total of 11,000 new homes and miles of new roads, win a final state review and some legal challenges and get to work.

At the same time, the beloved endangered cougars are gaining ground thanks to local and state land preservation efforts that are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Florida Forever is a taxpayer-funded land conservation program that purchases rural properties – usually farms or large undeveloped sections of land. If not bought outright, the purchase is for the land’s “conservation easement,” which means a farming family, for example, still owns and works their ranch but has sold the rights to ever let it be developed with homes or businesses.

During the past four years, Floridians have committed more than $1.25 billion to the Florida Forever Program and acquired nearly 220,000 acres for conservation, which sets a record, and 90 percent of the land is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

In December alone, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet approved two acquisitions totaling 2,956 acres for $10.8 million. The land remains in the hands of the current owners, but the so-called “conservation easements” now rest with the taxpayers.

Both acquisitions will be overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and are located within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a designated network of mostly connected lands that create a woodsy setting for long journeys throughout the state’s wildlife habitat.

“The dedicated efforts of the DEP team to shepherd and finalize numerous property transactions for the Florida Forever Program this year reflect their unwavering commitment to conservation,” said Mallory Dimmitt, the CEO of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. “Additionally, we’re thrilled to witness the leadership of the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, culminating in their most robust year of closings yet.”

Bayles, Tom

Nearly 1,500 acres of easements acquired last month are in the Caloosahatchee Ecoscape Florida Forever project in Glades and Hendry counties. The land is a working cattle ranch, the majority of which has been altered by clearing and drainage for farming and pastures. Some of the land has been used for sod farming.

Despite the disturbed landscape, the $5.2 million acquisition provides important habitat for a variety of wildlife species beyond panthers. The mosaic of wet prairies, cypress basin, dome swamp, mesic and wet flatwoods, depressional marshes, and scrub are important spaces between the Caloosahatchee River and Okaloacoochee Slough.

While located directly south of State Road 80 in northern Hendry County, the property shares the majority of its western boundary with two privately held conservation easements.

Conservation easements on 1,531-acres within the Myakka Ranchlands Florida Forever project in DeSoto County is between the Myakka and Peace rivers. Never to be developed further, the easements will contribute to the protection of the rivers’ watersheds and the future water quality and quantity needs of the region.

The $5.8 million property also provides habitat for gopher tortoises as well as birds that nest in open areas including the crested caracara, Florida sandhill crane, Florida burrowing owl, and the Southeastern American kestrel.

Before those purchases, the 2,100-acre Syfrett Ranch in Highlands and Glades counties was added to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

The record spending on preservation of the lands in Southwest Florida comes at the same time that commissioners in Lee and Collier counties have already approved the separate plans of a pair of developers for massive new residential complexes in the eastern parts of each county.

The Town of Big Cypress, as proposed, seeks to introduce residential, commercial, and recreational spaces into a largely undeveloped region of cypress trees and wetlands, sparking a debate with environmentalists about sustainable development and environmental conservation in one of Florida's most crucial natural habitats just a mile or so from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Kingston, another proposed development in the Western Everglades, is to be situated off Corkscrew Road in southeast Lee County and includes residential units, commercial establishments, and possibly some light industrial facilities. Its development is also at odds with environmentalists who also worry its location poses significant environmental considerations, given the sensitivity of the surrounding ecosystems including proven panther habitat.

Developers of both mixed-use communities say they have followed the rules, and are donating more land for conservation that they are building upon.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Tom Bayles
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