A report on the public hearing for the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge

Carlton, Elam and I spent Friday hunched over maps we spread over the camp house table, slowly piecing together our route from Florida Bay to Okeefenokee. Late in the day some friends from the National Wildlife Refuge Association joined us for dinner. The NWRA is a small non-profit organization that advocates in D.C. for the protection and expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge system. They are intensely involved in the process of securing the proposed Northern Everglades National Wildlife Refuge for central Florida. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar traveled to Florida earlier in the year to announce the intentions of the federal government.

http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/Salazar-Announces-Initiative-to-Conserve-Working-Lands-and-Wildlife-Habitat-in-the-Everglades-Headwaters.cfm

http://www.fws.gov/southeast/greatereverglades/pdf/GEPIProjectProposal.pdf

The plan includes three regions of Florida, but their focus is on first securing the Everglades headwaters, which means they are focusing on the Kissimmee River Basin north of Lake Okeechobee. Saturday was the last public hearing and comment session the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which would be the agency responsible for overseeing the refuge, is holding for this phase of the project.

Most in attendance at the public hearing expressed support for the government’s Option C, which consists of the Feds working with ranchers and landowners to negotiate easements, buying up the development rights while allowing them to continue practicing their livelihoods. For all involved, this seems to be a win-win strategy. It will certainly improve the ability of the various agencies to improve water quality throughout central and south Florida, and will go a long way toward restoring the Everglades to their historic function.

It seems that all things are coming to a head, all leaning in favor of getting some good conservation land established in this critical part of the Everglades watershed; the by-most-accounts-unfortunate economic downturn that presents the opportunity to buy land for conservation, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, the proposed new refuge system, the state’s draft black bear management plan, which calls for connectivity among the bear populations, and even the contributions of M34, whose movements essentially defined the scale at which this landscape needs to be protected.

With these things in mind, I made a statement at the public hearing, speaking about the importance of private lands to the Highlands/Glades county population, and the conservation vision of my academic ancestors, Dr. Larry Harris and Dr. Dave Maehr. Afterwards I spoke with representatives of USFWS, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon of Florida, the Marshall Foundation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Florida Cattleman’s Association. Everyone is interested in the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, and expressed support for our efforts. It seems that just about everyone can get behind conservation, as long as you can still make it about the people. And so the Florida Wildlife Corridor has a pulse.