MIAMI – The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday it will invest $100 million in a program to restore wetlands in the Florida Everglades.
“Protecting and restoring the Northern Everglades is critical not just to Floridians, but to all Americans,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
The official traveled from Washington to Florida’s Palm Beach County to present the initiative at a press conference in the Winding Waters Natural Area, where he was accompanied by local authorities and heads of agricultural and environmental organizations.
The program will spur Everglades restoration with the aid of farmers and ranchers, who will receive compensation in exchange for pledging not to develop land located in a more than 9,700-hectare ($24,000-acre) area near Lake Okeechobee.
USDA will purchase permanent easements from landowners with the aim of recovering and ensuring conservation of the Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is also the source of drinking water for millions of Florida residents.
“The wetland restoration will reduce the amount of surface water leaving the land, slowing water runoff and the concentration of nutrients entering the public water management system and ultimately Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades,” the USDA said.
The investment represents the largest amount of funding Florida has received through the Wetlands Reserve Program for conservation projects in a single basin.
Private landowners “play a critical role in restoring wetlands and protecting wildlife in this unique habitat,” Vilsack said, adding that the granting of permanent easements represents a “more efficient” use of federal funding in this effort.
“This is a win-win that helps restore the Northern Everglades while allowing Florida ranching traditions to continue,” Bill Nelson, one of the state’s two U.S. senators, said in a statement.
In 2010, Washington acquired 10,520 hectares (26,000 acres) for easement under the Wetlands Reserve Program in the area of Fisheating Creek, the last remaining free-flowing water course feeding into Lake Okeechobee.
These initiatives provide an important push to Everglades restoration, a project that had been stalled for years and seemed further threatened by Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to cut state spending for restoration of that subtropical reserve by 66 percent from $50 million a year to $17 million.
“Our working lands provide abundant food, fuel and fiber and are an essential piece of vibrant and diverse rural communities that are part of the fabric of our nation,” Vilsack said Thursday.
“Well-managed private lands also support healthy ecosystems that provide clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other environmental services that benefit the public,” the secretary said. EFE