Ranchlands in southern Florida: A Low-Intensity Land Use.
Cow-calf operations in southern Florida are what we call a ‘low-intensity land use’. Florida’s ranchlands protect a vast amount of native habitat that is critical to the viability of many of our listed wildlife species. Ranchlands hold and filter water; the more we conserve these lands it negates the need to provide engineering ‘fixes’ down the road.
After conservation lands, cattle ranches are the land use with the greatest environmental value in southern Florida. Ranchlands play a significant environmental role in the southern peninsula. The mix of upland and wetland habitats on ranches can sustain virtually all the native wildlife biodiversity while providing water storage and filtration services for the rest of the population.
From an ecological perspective, a well-maintained cattle ranch is the most desired land use in many parts of the southern peninsula, (other than purely native habitat) as the pasture mimics much of the native prairie’s ecological functions and supports wildlife endemic to the region.
We have extremely limited funding conservation land acquisition funding, which means that every dollar of this funding must be used strategically and carefully. First, that means conservation easements are a cost-effective investment because they save both land acquisition funds as well as future land management dollars. Such conservation easements continue to support “working lands” uses including ranches in south Florida and silviculture in north Florida. These land uses are not purely pristine natural communities, but ranches still protect hundreds of thousands of acres of natural lands along with the combination of native range and improved pasture used for managing livestock. However, unless ranches are protected by conservation easements or other conservation agreements, they are highly likely to be lost to a combination of more intensive agriculture as well as suburban and urban land uses. In all cases, these alternative land uses would provide both significantly less wildlife habitat, water conservation benefits, and future water restoration opportunities than ranches do.