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Feds and judge give Florida’s Everglades a boost

Everglades restoration got a double boost this week — first from a Miami federal judge who approved a landmark $880 million pollution cleanup plan and then from the Obama administration, which announced an $80 million expansion of a program that already has preserved nearly 100,000 acres of rural wetlands in the Northern Everglades.

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold on Wednesday issued an order clearing the path for resolving long-running legal battles over reducing the flow of damaging nutrients from farm, ranches and yards into the struggling River of Grass.

The administration followed up Friday with an announcement that it will pay farmers and ranchers $80 million to place “conservation easements” on some 23,000 acres in the Northern Everglades, including a key parcel in Glades County that biologists consider critical to saving the endangered Florida panther. The 1,278-acre American Prime tract, named for a company that once wanted to develop it, provides a corridor for the big cats to cross the Caloosahatchee River and allow a population concentrated in Southwest Florida to expand northward.

The news conference in Kissimmee, featuring four top White House aides overseeing Glades issues, included the release of a report touting some $1.5 billion in Everglades funding over the past three years — a major increase over the previous four years under President George W. Bush.

“With the president’s leadership, we are making real and measurable progress in Everglades restoration,’’ said Nancy Sutley, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a news release.

Charles Lee, a longtime activist for Audubon of Florida, acknowledged the announcement was aimed at burnishing the president’s image in a swing state important to his reelection hopes but also called that typical election-year politics.

“From our point of view, $80 million and 23,000 acres is nothing to sneeze at,’’ said Lee, who attended the announcement at the Disney Wilderness Preserve. “That’s more than the entire state program has done in the last two or three years.’’

Among other projects, the report cited continuing work to restore 3,000 acres of historic floodplain along the Kissimmee River, construction of a new bridge along Tamiami Trail and plans to establish the 150,000-acre Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area north of Lake Okeechobee.

The conservation easement program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has emerged over the past three years as a promising new restoration strategy. Since 2009, the administration has spent $373 million, far more than any other state, to purchase similar easements on some 95,000 acres of wild lands mostly west and north of Lake Okeechobee.

The easements come much cheaper than outright land purchases. And they allow farmers and ranchers to continue using land while blocking development, preserving habitat and helping store and clean up damaging nutrients from water flowing south toward the greater Everglades. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the administration’s Everglades efforts also have created nearly 7,000 jobs.

Cary Lightsey, a Lake Wales rancher whose family has participated in the program, told the Tampa Bay Times that future residents will appreciate the conservation program more than voters today.

“If we didn’t do anything, then most of this land would become houses,” he said.

The decision from Gold, who over the past few years has issued a series of rulings blasting state and federal agencies for “glacial delay” and repeatedly failing to enforce water-pollution standards tough enough to protect the Everglades, cleared the way for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue the state permits for a slate of new projects.

They’re part of a plan worked out between the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with the goal of settling two lawsuits over Everglades pollution, one going back to 1988. Gold, who handled a lawsuit filed in 2004 by the Miccosukee Tribe and the environmental group Friends of the Everglades, had pressured both sides to draft a new plan.

It calls for the state to expand an existing network of 45,000 acres of artificial marshes that absorb damaging nutrients from farm and suburban storm runoff that damages native plants and the Everglades food chain.

Though most environmental groups have applauded the plan, the tribe and Friends of the Everglades have been lukewarm. They filed briefs calling it a step in the right direction but arguing it will push back cleanup deadlines to 2025 — almost two decades beyond an original 2006 target — and questioning whether the state has a firm plan to pay for the work.