The Proposed Southwest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How You Can Learn More

March 30, 2023

Southwest Florida is home to some of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems in the United States. This region’s diverse landscape is host to a wide variety of endemic plants and endangered animal life, much of which is threatened by rapid population growth, land use intensification, and climate change.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System is embarking on an ambitious new effort to establish a Southwest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area. If successful, a new conservation area would allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to work with willing landowners to protect the lands most important to our water and wildlife, in one of the most biologically diverse regions in our country

The Service is examining ecological priorities within a study area that includes a broad swath of land from Big Cypress north to the Fisheating Creek and Peace River Watersheds, west to the Myakka River watershed, and east to the western portions of Lake Okeechobee. The study area covers a critical region for accomplishing Florida’s land and water conservation goals. Effective conservation here will have important benefits for people and wildlife. A new conservation area would be a subset of this broader study area and will be based on input from the public.

Why is This Area So Important?

The SWFL Study Area is a system of dry prairies, hammocks, wetlands, cattle ranches, and other agricultural lands home to many rare and endemic plants and animals, including 74 federally or state-listed threatened and endangered species. Wildlife in this region continues to sustain pressure from rapid development, disappearing ranchlands, and sea level rise. This region also has tremendous overlap with the state-designated Florida Wildlife Corridor. Conserving the Florida Wildlife Corridor will ensure that wildlife can move safely through the landscape and also conserve the areas that provide us with clean air, water, and food.

The creation of a Southwest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation area would allow landowners to sell their land outright or place it in a conservation easement that precludes more intensive development allowing ranchers and farmers to keep their working lands intact and productive. Additionally, when the USFWS owns the land outright it can create more opportunities for hunting and other recreational activities. The conservation area will also provide wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities including hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, and birding, while also protecting the rural watersheds that are important for recreational fisheries across the region.

Why Designate Southwest Florida as a Conservation Area?

Conservation Areas are a tool that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) can use, working with state and local agencies, to ensure that important wildlife habitats, working lands, and the ecosystems that sustain the state’s tourism are preserved. The USFWS can purchase conservation land with an approved acquisition boundary. With a Conservation Area designation, landowners have more options for working with different agencies and for protecting their land with conservation easements.

A Southwest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area will complement other successful state and federal conservation efforts, such as our Florida Forever and  Rural and Family Lands Protection Programs, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and other local and county programs. A conservation area will build upon existing local, state, and federal efforts by providing another way to protect important lands with willing sellers. When the USFWS partners with other organizations to protect land, they can leverage funds and resources from different sources leading to increased funding opportunities for acquiring and restoring land. This means that more money can be put towards conservation efforts to conserve water, wildlife, and Florida’s way of life.

The Southwest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area seeks to protect the unique biological diversity of Southwest Florida from the threat of development and the consequences of a changing climate. By working with willing landowners through strategic acquisition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to create a conservation area that benefits wildlife, plants, and people alike. For clarity, the Study Area is not the acquisition boundary. An acquisition boundary will be determined over a stakeholder-driven public planning period. If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, be sure to attend one of the upcoming public meetings and make your voice heard.