FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 26, 2023
Contact: Julie Morris
MYAKKA CITY, FL – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has announced an ambitious new effort to establish the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area in southwest Florida. If approved, this new conservation area would allow the USFWS to work with willing landowners to protect the lands that are most important to the state’s water and wildlife in one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States.
The Florida Conservation Group, University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning, and the National Wildlife Refuge Association have partnered with USFWS to provide the science foundation behind this effort, and to lead the stakeholder and outreach efforts on the ground.
USFWS’s proposal identifies a 4-million-acre region spanning 12 counties west of Lake Okeechobee from Lakeland to Naples. The region includes over 3 million acres of unprotected habitat for threatened and endangered species as well as unique natural communities at the heart of Florida’s unique prairie ranching landscape. The proposed conservation area is home to over 70 federally or state-listed threatened and endangered species and iconic species like the Florida panther, Florida scrub jay, Audubon’s crested caracara, Everglade snail kite, and sand skink. The ecologically diverse region includes wet prairie and freshwater marshes, forested wetlands, dry prairie and pine flatwoods, scrub/shrub, agricultural lands, and pastures.
“The proposed conservation area covers a critical region for accomplishing Florida’s land and water conservation goals and will have important benefits for people and wildlife across the state,” said Julie Morris, Director of the Florida Conservation Group. “This effort would help protect key natural lands as well as Florida’s unique prairie ranching landscape. The proposed boundary includes Everglades watersheds and the entire Peace River and Myakka River watersheds. These are essential for the health of Charlotte Harbor, a National Estuary and hub of nature-based tourism and economic activity.”
The proposed conservation area aims to preserve threatened natural communities, wildlife species, and working landscapes. Establishment of the conservation area would allow USFWS to work within the region to pursue conservation easements from willing landowners. Conservation easements allow landowners to keep their working lands intact and productive while precluding more intensive development. USFWS could work with willing sellers to purchase up to 400,000 acres in fee-title acquisitions, which would allow opportunities for hunting and other recreational activities for the public. The conservation area would also provide wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities, including fishing, kayaking, and birding, while protecting the rural watersheds that are important for recreational fisheries across the region. Designation of the conservation area would also assist and complement the State of Florida’s successful efforts to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Although Southwest Florida has a rich history of conservation planning and land protection, it faces growing threats from rapid population growth, land use intensification, and climate change. “I am confident that concerted, science-based, and partnership driven conservation can succeed,” said Morris.
The draft proposal was developed with extensive public input, including consideration of approximately 2,600 public comments, which were widely supportive. The final conservation area boundary will be determined based on input from the public.
The USFWS has released a draft Everglades to Gulf Land Protection Plan and draft environmental assessment. The public will be able to review possible impacts and alternatives to the proposal. Details, including information on public meetings, will be posted online at: https://www.fws.gov/project/everglade-to-gulf-conservation-area.
All interested parties have the opportunity to participate and provide comments during the open 30-day comment period. Please submit comments to: email@example.com or NWRS E2G CA, P.O. Box 700188, Wabasso, FL 32970.
Photo by Carlton Ward