The area also includes other important swaths of wild lands. One is the so-called East Coast Buffer, which winds from western Palm Beach County down through Miami-Dade along the border of Everglades National Park and was intended to preserve a transitional area between Southeast Florida’s sprawling suburbs and the marshes to the west. There are also sprawling wetlands in South Miami-Dade as well as some of the last remaining large chunks of undeveloped land along southern Biscayne Bay.
The district hasn’t yet identified specific Everglades parcels to formally consider for land swaps or to “surplus” for potential sale to private owners. But the most likely targets are isolated tracts in areas where plans for restoration projects have fallen through or been scaled back. Those include the Las Palmas area of west Miami-Dade, once known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area, as well as the Bird Drive basin east of Krome Avenue and north of Tamiami Trail, where the district owns a checkerboard of small wetland tracts, many of them overrun with exotic vegetation.
At a Wednesday workshop at the district’s headquarters in West Palm Beach, environmentalists urged water managers to preserve as much as possible and not undervalue land that might temporarily be choked by exotic vegetation. Even degraded lands provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife, help recharge ground water and control flooding, said Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society in Miami.
Land can easily be restored, she said, but “even just sitting there open land is incredibly valuable.”
Drew Martin of the Loxahatchee chapter of the Sierra Club urged the district to apply protective conservation deed restrictions to any land it may decide to give up to other agencies or counties.
“We forget, these lands were purchased for a reason and that was to provide a buffer for natural areas,’’ he said
Representatives from the U.S. Interior Department, Loxahatchee refuge and Miami-Dade County government also urged water managers to proceed cautiously.
Gwen Burzycki, a special-projects administrator for Miami-Dade’ environmental division, said both the county and district had invested a lot of time and money to protecting and managing wetlands.
“It would be a financial travesty to let these lands go after we have put so much effort into getting them into shape,’’ she said.
Ray Palmer, section leader of the district’s real estate division, said the process of deciding what and how to surplus any parcels was complicated. For starters, at least two dozen different sources of state, federal and county funding have been used to acquire land over the decades, and many , from the Florida Save Our Everglades trust fund to assorted other state, county and federal programs. Many of those programs came with covenants that restrict how land can be used, swapped or sold and could require approval from other agencies.
The district staff intends to come up with an initial list of proposals for the Everglades region in August and, after another period of public comment, present a final list to the district’s governing board in September. A list for a region north of Lake Okeechobee presented to the board last month included some 6,200 acres of land for disposal.
Water managers said they have no target number they are shooting for. Palmer said he expects a very small percentage of land in the Everglades region to make the list.