The Obama administration on Thursday will pump $100 million into a little-known program that is going a long way toward redefining Everglades restoration.
The money won't go to build reservoirs. It will go to ranchers.
In exchange, the ranchers will give up development rights to as much as 24,000 acres — some 37 square miles — in four counties northwest of Lake Okeechobee and preserve them under permanent conservation easements. Plans call for eventually converting what is often marginal pastureland back into wetland, where it will provide habitat for wildlife and absorb damaging pollutants that now trickle into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, scheduled to announce the largest outlay Florida has received under the Wetlands Reserve Program during a Thursday press conference in Palm Beach County, said the effort underlined his agency’s commitment to restoring the Northern Everglades and boasted benefits for industry and environment alike.
“It puts money into the pockets of land owners and takes land that might otherwise not be particularly productive and puts it to better use,’’ Vilsack said an interview from his Washington office before the announcement.
Keith Fountain, The Nature Conservancy’s director of land acquisition in Florida, said the USDA program is quietly preserving vast swaths of open land, an accomplishment of “historical significance in terms of Everglades restoration.’’
Last year, the program paid $89 million to acquire development rights for 26,000 acres along Fisheating Creek, the last remaining natural tributary into Lake Okeechobee. That deal with four big Highlands County land owners — a mix of corporations and old ranching families that included Westby Corp., the Doyle Carlton family, the H.L. Clark family and Blue Head Ranch — created the largest contiguous conservation easement in the program’s history.
The additional $100 million — the largest chunk ever for a state from the program — will broaden the effort to not-yet-named large land owners in Glades, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee counties with a target of another 24,000 acres. Together with the previous development rights buy, that represents a major boost from a federal agency that has been mostly quiet during more than a decade of Everglades restoration debate and planning.
Fountain, whose group has championed the wetlands program, said it is proving so popular with land owners that there are more applications than funds.
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