I am a sixth-generation Floridian and third-generation Florida cattle rancher. My grandfather founded our ranch, Williamson Cattle Company, in the 1940s. Our family-run ranch is located in Okeechobee County, the heart of Florida’s cattle county.
Many people don’t realize the extent to which cattle ranching is important to Florida’s economy and the critical role ranching plays in protecting the state. We are a rural county, but we live in a disappearing landscape. There are more than 150,000 cattle in Okeechobee County, almost four times the population of people. Yet we are within 150 miles of 13 million Flordians.
Our rural lands are giving way to development as 1,000 people a day move to Florida. As development increases, ranches are under increasing economic pressure to be divided and sold. Cattle ranches protect Florida’s last frontier from development and are crucial to protecting wildlife and water, natural landscape and wetlands. Much of the land on our ranch has been left in its natural state; we are proud to protect native wildlife, and we manage the land so wildlife can flourish. Wetlands on cattle ranches supply valuable habitat while acting as natural water storage that help clean and supply drinking water to millions of people in South Florida. Ranchers have worked with the World Wildlife Fund, Audubon and others to ensure that our ranching practices are environmentally sustainable.
In 1521, Ponce de Leon brought the first cattle into Florida. These were also the first cattle introduced into North America. Today our state is home to seven of the nation’s 15 largest cattle ranches. It is a $3 billion industry in Florida, carried out over 5 million acres of pristine land.
Conservation easements are essential for Florida cattle ranching to continue. Such easements purchase development rights and leave land in private ownership and on the tax rolls. They are a cost-effective way to ensure land protection at a fraction of the cost of outright ownership.
Florida has always been a national leader in land protection. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, under the state Department of Agriculture, focuses on the protection of valuable agricultural lands and ensures sustainable agriculture through conservation easements. The Florida Forever program, under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is focused on our highest quality natural resources and uses both land acquisition and conservation easements to protect the landscape. Both programs are critical to the environmental future of our state.
Landowners from across Florida are coming together to advocate for conservation easement funding. The Florida Conservation Group believes that conservation easements are the most economically efficient way to protect land and water resources for future generations. Landowners have enlisted in these conservation easement programs so we can ensure there is an option to permanently protect them from development. Our friends in the environmental community share the same vision and are also advocating for continued conservation easement funding.
We call on Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators to fund the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and Florida Forever during the upcoming legislative session. As development encroaches into rural Florida, we are at risk of forever losing the opportunity to protect our wild places. These programs are needed to protect our state's water supply, clean air, and wildlife and maintain the agriculture that is a critical part of the state’s economy. Conservation easements are a much needed option to protect our lands. Without maintaining Florida’s cattle ranches, the land will be turned into what my father calls "The Final Crop". Once land goes into housing, it never comes back, and we all are poorer.
Wes Williamson is the owner of Williamson Cattle Company in Okeechobee County.